How do we teach biomimetic design thinking?

Solar Ivy: fluttering solar panels that generate energy. Designed by Samuel Cochran and Teresita Cochran

Solar Ivy: fluttering solar panels that generate energy. Designed by Samuel Cochran and Teresita Cochran

Self-washing plates. Solar Ivy. Non-motorized transport inspired by millipede movement. Investment strategies based on the behavior of bees.

These examples illustrate that Biomimicry is the future of our challenge to live intelligently in harmony with the earth’s biodiversity. Energy problems can be solved by existing models in Nature, even potentially the big scary issues like climate change. Yet, Biomimicry is not so widely practiced as it should be. Why not?

As a new discipline, the fundamental obstacle to Biomimicry’s ubiquity derives from the way science is taught. In a fabulous recent feature, TED brought together the two foremost thought leaders in design thinking and biomimicry for an invigorating discussion. Janine Benyus, Founder of Biomimicry 3.8, and Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, delved into the ultimate creative genius of Nature, and why it is so seldom emulated by us humans.

 Janine Benyus, TED: Biomimicry In Action

 Janine Benyus, TED: Biomimicry In Action

Benyus hit the nail right on the head:

"Why isn't there, in other words, a science around this? There are very deep methodologies around learning about Nature, but not about learning from Nature."

That’s an excellent question. As the recipient of a top-notch education in academics and art/design, I still feel that link is missing. There’s no real system to teach people to look at Nature in this way. There’s no toolbox to support biomimetic design thinking. Once I had hit on this idea, it became my mission to create such a toolbox for kids. And, as the mother to a child starting her own educational journey, I wanted to create a sandbox for children with these tools, starting early as possible.

So, what do these tools look like? These are the questions that have driven me for the past ten years. After years of thought, experimentation and trial-and-error, I teased out the main drivers for a successful system:

It's Gotta Be Fun

Children are hardwired to learn through play, and early childhood education creates spaces for playing and exploration. Once “serious” schooling starts around age seven or eight, content delivery becomes more information intensive and starts to look more like “work” than play. Play is pull, work is push, and pull is more effective at engaging children's sponge-like minds to absorb knowledge passively, intuitively and effectively.

It's Gotta Be Smart

Simply gamifying information isn't enough to teach it well. If you want kids to be able to navigate the Tree of Life, you need to give them clear, easy and reliable tools to do so. The smartest way to do this is to break down information into digestible chunks which can then be built back together.

Tim Brown, TED: Designers-Think Big!

Tim Brown, TED: Designers-Think Big!

As Tim Brown says, "[The] ability to move from the specific to the general through figuring out what the principles are is a fundamental part of the creative process."

Nature is the ultimate example of Complexity Theory. Brilliantly organized into small, simple parts, they fit together just so to build something huge and complex. Start children with the smallest chunks of information, like Lego or Minecraft blocks and they’ll build their store of knowledge out into large structures.

It's Gotta Be Cumulative

Just as the inventor of kindergarten made a series of toys which grow with the child at different stages of development, teaching the building blocks of Nature’s design is most effective as a cumulative system. The simplest pieces are delivered to the youngest, and the dots connect increasingly over the child’s development.

It’s Gotta Be Beautiful

We learn first by seeing, especially children. Therefore the tools to learn about Nature should be as beautiful as nature herself. Science education is not the place to get cheap or ugly when you are trying to inspire kids to mimic Nature's beautiful design.

There's plenty more thinking behind these principles, but these are the basics. I've found them to be highly effective. Biomimicry’s seemingly limitless potential are the core and key of sustainable design practice of the future. This future, and the tools to reach it, are the gift we need to give our children.

Where do you see biomimicry, design thinking, and science education converge? I want to hear from you!