Engineered and Engineers by Nature

I left the classroom almost one year ago because of an increasing sense of trying to swim upstream in an educational river of mud. Speak to anyone who is trying to bring meaningful change to elementary and secondary science education in this country and I am sure they have had the same feeling at times. Most science classrooms look much like they have for the past 50 years and curriculum still tends to focus on facts not process and possibilities. I routinely had seniors in my Engineering Design class remark that “This is first time science has been fun since I was little”. And while that was personally gratifying to hear, professionally it was sad. You often can’t fix things in that one remaining year of high school. It was frustrating to think of how many creative and talented young people walked away from STEM fields because methods founded in the 1950s and a focus on rapid coverage of facts just didn’t engage them.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity this year to impact larger numbers of younger students. I have worked with middle school teachers and teachers of high school freshman and sophomores. I guess my real goal has been to put the fun back in earlier and to get the mud out of the river of material we call science education. With the introduction of the NGSS, we have a chance to highlight connections between different sciences and to the real world. Incorporating an engineering approach is almost easier with younger students; they are natural engineers. All of those connections are what can make science meaningful, manageable, and engaging for young people.

I am asked, almost universally, how can you combine engineering and life science or biology? Most teachers equate engineering with physics oriented projects, like building bridges, egg drop contests, and launching “rockets”. But when you look closely, everything in the natural world is engineered. Every natural environment has constraints. Lifeforms and processes have developed to solve problems, overcome limitations, and to meet certain criteria necessary for life. Processes and products have been modified and optimized by multiple iterations over long time periods. Look at any graphic descibing the engineering design process and you will see parallels in nature.

So how do you move teaching in biology away from the old model of memorization of terms, pages and pages of notes, and far too much material to allow for meaningful learning. It is really pretty simple – the real world connection you need is the natural world. Some of our best designs come from nature. A focus on biomimicry can allow for both exploration of the natural world and the application of what is discovered in attempts to employ good engineering design to solve human-created problems. We are, after all, part of nature. Sustainable solutions to the problems we face need to meet the criteria of continued life on this planet and the constraints of limited resources. And the low-tech aspect of nature makes it less intimidating for student exploration and understanding. Developing projects based on biomimicry is a definite win-win. Plants use sunlight to generate energy, spiders make a material stronger than any we have, and birds can change their wing shape to soar. We have not even come close to these processes and products that have evolved to meet the needs of continued survival. There is an amazing amount to learn here. A great place to get started is at the Biomiimicry Institute website.

Another easy fit in biology is the amazing machine we live in – the human body. It is a complex system of highly engineered processes and materials. Sensing technologies, networked circuits, lightweight but strong structures, highly efficient pumps, well-orchestrated manufacturing, energy conversion processes,  and seamless synergy form some of the basic engineering present in the human body. There is an endless source of material for engineering projects here, ranging from investigations to developing analogous models to further understand complex processes.  A recent project I completed involved modelling protein synthesis as an assembly line process designed to manufacture individual blocks (amino acids), and then assemble them into kits (proteins). Students had to reverse engineer, think about orientation, encode instructions, perform quality checks, and saw the need for reliable repeatability. Something to small to see and highly complex became tangible and interactive for them.

Protein Synthesis

As a former materials engineer, I am fascinated by the materials design in nature and in the human body. Our bones have an amazing strength to weight ratio because of their design. Our skin is an amazing example of the very trendy “wearable technology”, embedded with sensors and adapting to its environment. During a recent visit to the Boston Museum of Science, I saw an amazing exhibit about the work being done by a materials scientist in the MIT Media Lab, Neri Oxman. Among her many projects is developing building “skins” that can respond to the environment, much like the way our own skin does.

Neri Oxman

I am finding that incorporating engineering into life science and biology curriculum is actually pretty easy. More importantly, it conveys the idea that technology is not just electronics, that design is not just a human domain. Young children are natural engineers. They easily rise to the challenge of solving the problems they have to deal with every day. By letting them see how that happens throughout the natural world we will go a long way towards our goal of educating young people ready to take on the challenge of a sustainable future.

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