Learning from Nature: Imitation and Invention | Harbord & Khan | 4 Min Read

After the lockdowns and restrictions of learning to live with COVID-19, most people realized the value of just being in nature with its benefits for mental health and physical wellbeing. The Japanese have a term called ‘forest bathing’ (shinrin-yoku) where you just immerse yourself in nature. Remember this isn’t exercise: it is more like a mindfulness activity where you slow down and absorb the experience of being in the forest by engaging your senses. You look, smell, listen and touch; through your senses, you connect to de-stress and relax. Studies show even a two-hour forest bath will help you be calm and stay in the moment.

How does ‘forest bathing’ relate to creativity? When are we at our most creative and innovative? According to our knowledge of how the brain affects how we learn, creativity and innovation are optimized if our brain is in a relaxed state. Our use of technology often hinders our ability to relax as the addiction to checking social media and FOMO impact our actions. Can we use our connection to nature as a strategy to activate our creativity and help us to solve problems? 

In our 2020 interview with Dr. Jane Goodall, we raised this very question. Dr. Goodall explains that the power of knowing about and understanding something allows us to begin to care about it: “How could research about nature make me more caring about my environment?” By learning about the amazing plants and animals and their environment and understanding their role in our world we understand the need to conserve them to retain the powerful circle of life (Harbord & Khan, 2020).

Along with conservation, inspiration from nature has always helped humans solve problems, even if we have called this inspiration by other names. One such term popularized by Janine Benyus in 1997 is Biomimicry. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Biomimicry as​​ the imitation of natural biological designs or processes in engineering or invention. A famous example is of the Swiss engineer George de Mestral: while in the woods, he noticed how a weedy annual plant, cocklespur, stuck to his dog’s hair and used this concept to invent Velcro. 

Another illustration of Biomimicry is the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Most people think they know something about this great Italian polymath. Some know him for his great artwork while others for his scientific and engineering studies and inventions, but how many of us realize that it was his close observation of nature that led him to many of his inventions and understanding of anatomy? Leonardo documented his studies of nature: from the way water flows to the flight of birds; he was an early adopter of Biomimicry:

“See how the beating of its wings against the air supports a heavy eagle in the highly rarefied air…Observe also how the air in motion over the sea fills the swelling sails and drives heavily laden ships. So a man with wings large enough, and duly attached might learn to overcome the resistance of the air, and conquer and subjugate it, and raise himself upon it”.

Nicholl, 2005

Although a successful flying machine escaped da Vinci, his drawings inspired the Wright Brothers, as did their personal observations of the flight of pigeons. They successfully flew the first airplane in 1903. Observation and paying attention are crucial to learning and the development of the skills that can produce innovation, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity. How can observation of nature, its systems and scientific processes, support the student learning experience? 

Biomimicry is gaining traction with engineers, scientists, and architects, to name a few, as a source for new ways to solve old problems. But, how can we use Biomimicry in our classrooms? In their Youth Design Challenge 2022, Biomimicry.org has aligned instructional models to the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). If we really want our STEAM students to explore and innovate, then using Biomimicry as a starting point is an excellent strategy. For example, as a result of the lotus leaf’s bumpy surface, dirt doesn’t stick and is easily washed away by rain, blown away by a gentle breeze, or falls as a result of gravity. Nature is clever and has solutions we can use and have used, like self-cleaning glass, tiles, paint, and cement were developed by mirroring the lotus leaf structure. Furthermore, by applying the lotus leaf design to buildings like skyscrapers, we can save millions of gallons of water and detergents. Maintenance and material replacement costs can also be reduced. So this results in a win-win situation: less waste, better use of resources, and great innovative solutions. 

Another example of Biomimicry is the robotic arm developed by a German company called Festo. They were inspired by an elephant trunk’s flexibility and precision of motion in three dimensions.

Observation, curiosity, and creativity can inspire student innovation. Our students are clever, so why not show them how they could use Biomimicry to unleash their innovative potential? Sometimes, we all have difficulties generating ideas to start a PBL project, but Biomimicry may help us come up with exciting ideas for our curious students.

Part 1: Moving Goalposts 2022: More Educational Leadership Challenges Coming Your Way | Harbord & Khan

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website: https://harbordandkhan.com/

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