Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

From Skeletons to Bridges & Other Stem Enrichment Exercises for High School Biology

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

From Skeletons to Bridges & Other Stem Enrichment Exercises for High School Biology

Article excerpt


The national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education Initiative has focused mostly on the physical sciences, chemistry, and physics. These sciences have a more direct link to math and engineering than biology has. However, modern biological constructs have an underlying quantitative framework. Likewise, technological advances often stem from investigations of biological systems. For example, the engineering discipline biomimicry quantitatively examines the adaptive solutions of organisms to various problems they face in nature. The goal of such investigations is to adapt these solutions to human problems (Benyus, 1997). Examples of some of the technological contributions made by the field of biomimicry are presented in Table 1.

Similar ties between biology, physics, and engineering exist in all the engineering disciplines. Utilizing these ties to broaden the educational perspective of high school students can provide a multidisciplinary experience involving the wonders of the living world, something we are inherently interested in.

Adding an Engineering Unit to the Biology in a Box Project

One way to integrate biology, physics, math, and engineering principles into the respective classrooms or into a multidisciplinary program is to add an engineering theme to the Biology in a Box science education project. Riechert initiated this outreach project in 1995 with primary funding from the Howard Hughes Foundation to enrich curriculum content in biology and math in K-12 classrooms. Biology in a Box exercises employ inquiry methodology in which teachers act as facilitators and student teams as collaborators. Each Biology in a Box exercise within a theme provides the background introduction to a particular concept and the blue print and materials necessary to explore it. Math educators from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) collaborate with the project by incorporating math elements in the exercises where appropriate. Just as the science presented is designed to meet grade-appropriate federal standards, all mathematical computations are presented in a didactic format that reinforces fundamentals taught in K-12 math classes.

Materials needed for completion of the exercises contained in the units are completely reusable and are housed in a wooden trunk, the size of which varies according to the materials required by the particular theme. Ten themes are currently offered: Fossils; Of Skulls & Teeth; Fur, Feathers, Scales: Insulation; Simple Measures; It's in Your Genes; Animal Kingdom; Backyard Naturalist; Everything Varies; Forestry; and Behavior. Sets of the thematic units are donated to school systems (79 partners to date), and MS PowerPoin[R] and pdf versions of the exercises for each theme are available at the project's Web site ( edu/biologyinbox/default.htm).

An engineering box to complement the 10 current themes will enrich the curriculum by interconnecting math, physics, biology, and technology. The topic of biomimicry is so broad that conceivably we could develop several engineering themes ranging from the molecular level (e.g., catalysts and hydrogen fuels) to ecosystem processes (design of waste disposal facilities). However, we have chosen mechanical engineering for this initial Biology in a Box engineering theme because of its strong links to physics. Also, the materials required are appropriate to Biology in a Box in that they are reusable and can fit inside a wooden trunk.

Descriptions of Example Engineering Unit Exercises

Exercise 1: From Skeletons to Bridges

D'Arcy Thompson (1860-1948), a Scottish mathematical biologist, was among the first to apply mathematics and physics to the study of the form and structure of organisms. In his famous book On Growth and Form (Thompson, 1992; first published in 1917), he provided example after example of correlations between biological forms and mechanical phenomena. …

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