Anti-counterfeiting technology inspired by the wings of a butterfly. A robotic arm inspired by an elephant’s trunk. Fascinating ideas like these are everyday at The Biomimicry Institute – an organisation dedicated to promoting biomimicry, or design that emulates nature to create sustainable and effective solutions to our problems. Recently the Institute held their annual Youth Design Challenge (YDC), where middle to high schoolers join the fun, designing solutions to problems they see in their surroundings that are grounded in biomimicry.
We spoke to Gretchen Hooker, senior programme manager and biomimicry specialist at the Biomimicry Institute, about the 2021 edition of the YDC:
“The Institute has many projects hoping to promote biomimicry education and entrepreneurship. We have an online platform – Ask Nature (asknature.org) – that showcases inspiring strategies from nature and informs the public about the potential of biomimicry. We also have a design challenge and launchpad programmes supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, including our Ray of Hope Prize- a $100,000 award for a startup we think has promise.”
But why nature? “Because what we need are effective, long lasting, and sustainable systems, and nature’s the best example we’ve got,” says Gretchen. “It only makes sense to take inspiration [from nature].”
Biomimicry has applications across diverse fields, from energetics to architecture. “One field that I think is ripe for biomimicry is materials chemistry. Nature is full of materials – organic building blocks, if you will – that break down to form benign compounds once they fulfil their purpose. That’s a property we could use to make our designs more sustainable.”
It’s such properties and applications that YDC participants set out to find with their teams.
“Our YDC pilot programme first ran in 2018,” explains Gretchen. “We had held many innovation challenges at the university level in the past, and we got an increasing number of enquiries from schoolchildren and their teachers, asking if we had similar competitions for kids. It’s our fourth year now, and we continue to refine it as we learn.”
The YDC’s approach is to work with educators, who help their teams through an iterative process to design a nature-inspired project that they present to the judges. In 2021, there were are five award categories: the Naturalist Award, the Changemaker Award, the Design Cycle award, the Problem Definition Award, and the Storyteller Award.
“There were some brilliant ideas this year – for example, a frost-safe wind turbine inspired by the peaks and valleys on the surface of a mint leaf, which prevent the formation of ice. They identified a flaw in an existing design (poor performance in icy conditions) and improved a sustainable energy source. But what I loved was how doable it was – it makes you think, ‘hey, this is so simple, why aren’t they doing this right now?’ ”
THE NATURALIST AWARD
The naturalist award is given for ‘comprehensive research into biological models, thorough explanations of their natural history and strategies, and selection of appropriate organism models to inform the design.’
The high school winners for this category were Cynthia Zhang, Diya Patel, and Richa Shah from Hillsborough High School, coached by Minh Dang. They built a current cleanser inspired by fish gills – agricultural pollutants in the water supply would be filtered out through the principle of countercurrent multiplication. The water would be passed through tubing, around which a steady concentration of pollutants would be maintained. Thus, the contaminants diffuse through the tubing, leaving the water clean.
The middle school winners for this category were Devesh Venkateswaran, Karthik Mahakala, Krish Chinta, Luke Puttnam, and Om Deshmukh from River Trail Middle School, coached by Marwa Crisp. They chose to tackle the issue of overheating and subsequent reduction in efficiency in solar panels. They were inspired by the wings of the Oriental hornet, which use reflection, texture and curvature to reduce temperatures and increase absorbency, and applied these techniques to the panels.
THE CHANGEMAKER AWARD
The Changemaker award recognises ‘an innovative design proposal that could potentially move forward in future research and development and/or would have a significant impact if implemented.’
The high schoolers who won this award were Georgia Hammond and Kyle Zibell from Hereford High, coached by Michael Dodd-o. They sought to reduce the effects of coastline erosion with a two-pronged approach: reducing wave turbulence, and increasing the numbers of oysters and eelgrass on the coast. They designed a cement spiral inspired by mangroves, spiral horned antelope, and mud dauber wasps that would achieve both.
Audrey Hsu and Fiona Yao of Stratford Middle School took the middle school Changemaker award, coached by Kelsie Davis. Their project, Teardrop residence, was inspired by swordfish, geckos, beavers, and sea otters, and is a design for a home that would resist damage, stay put, and keep its inhabitants warm and safe in times of flooding.
THE DESIGN CYCLE AWARD
This award goes to teams who demonstrate ‘perseverance in the iterative design cycle including exploration of multiple design ideas, using creative techniques to test potential solutions, and/or getting feedback from diverse experts and interested community members to inform design revisions.’
In the high school category we have Adeline Hemerick, Julia Bryner, Liam Glenn, and Naomi Kesecker, from Wind Dance Farm & Earth Education Center, coached by Leslie Devine Milbourne. They decided to both reduce pollution and increase energy stores, and centred their efforts around wood-burning stoves. First, they would capture soot (a carbon pollutant) using electrostatic attraction, hair-like projections, and adhesive. This carbon could then be sequestered using mycelium remediation.
In the middle school category we have Klara Zietlow and Meera Singhal of The Knowledge Society, coached by Steven ten Holder. They designed the frost safe wind turbine inspired by mint leaves, which reduces drag-inducing frost build-up and increases turbine efficiency.
THE PROBLEM DEFINITION AWARD
The problem definition award rewards ‘systems thinking, thoroughness, and creativity in researching, identifying, and defining a problem to solve.’
The winning high school team was Bueri (Stella) Yoon, Daryna Serediuk, Gege (Grace) Liu, Jiwon Choi, May Shin, and Yungyeong (Zoe) Jung, of Fryeburg Academy, coached by Jennifer Richardson. They studied the nanostructures found on the wings of the Morpho butterfly, which absorb and reflect light waves. They designed similar mechanisms that can be used on buildings, which could regulate internal temperature without the need for expensive and polluting air conditioning systems.
The winning middle school team was Aubrey Needham, Lily Gustafson, Michael Preys, Quinten Lee, Sana Endamne-Wamba, Tahl Harel, and Zacharie Vidana, of North Star Academy, coached by Zena Fadel. They designed a way to replant trees over large areas easily, inspired by maple seeds, in order to combat deforestation. They made a seed carrier made of biodegradable material that could float to the soil and decompose, allowing the seed to germinate. With a large number of carriers, significant ground could be covered.
THE STORYTELLER AWARD
The Storyteller award is for those who have an ‘engaging presentation of the required application materials that creatively and accurately captures the team’s innovation process and learning journey.’
Team BioBRICKery won the high school category: Aylin Salahifar, Emma Scott, Erin Kee, Kayla Hogan, and Kiana George of Carlmont High School, coached by Sara Shayesteh. They combined the production of CaCO3 from marine organisms, the strong hexagonal architecture found in beehives, and frost resistance of arctic fish, to create the carbon-sequestering mud brick. This is an energy-efficient gateway to affordable housing.
Finally, we have team Coral Mangrove Dolos who won the middle school category: Pedro Ishitani Christofolo and William Hogg from Tokyo International School. They sought to improve the design of a Dolos – a concrete block that reduces coastline erosion – by making it sustainable and multipurpose. Alongside reducing wave energy, their design’s lattice structure provides a space for corals to grow.
“Winners have taken their projects forward- an example is the team who built underwater energy systems called tidal kites, which traditionally requires active, computer-based control. However, they were inspired by the aerodynamic design of the seeds of the Javan cucumbers and built kites that used a passive control system. They went on to present their idea at the Bioneers conference in 2019.”
Like almost everything last year, the YDC was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Oh, the schools were in chaos, and there were so many challenges to collaborating virtually. However, I must credit the ingenuity of the students and teachers – it’s their passion that got them to the finish line. I was worried about a drop in teams, but the numbers certainly exceeded my expectations. It was funny seeing a screenshot of a virtual meeting instead of a team photo, but we do what we must!”
FOR FUTURE APPLICANTS
“Don’t think that biomimicry isn’t for you. It’s a wonderful field that lies at the intersection of creativity and technical knowledge, and brings many people together. If you want to participate, simply find a group of peers and a mentor who believes in you – the YDC is a great way to learn the ropes of the field!”
“Nature is a treasure trove of interesting information. Slow down, spend time in the outdoors, start a nature journal. Take it all in and never stop asking questions – inspiration may lie in your own backyard, and biomimicry can help you take that fascination to the next level.”
Special thanks to Gretchen Hooker and the Biomimicry Institute for this interview.