Academic journal article Technology and Engineering Teacher

Gathering Design References from Nature

Academic journal article Technology and Engineering Teacher

Gathering Design References from Nature

Article excerpt


Teaching design to middle and high school students can be challenging. One of the first procedures in teaching design is to help students gather information that will be useful in the design phase. An early stage of engineering design as described by Lewis (2005), calls for the designer to establish the state of the art of the problem. During this phase, the designer should look for similar problems and study the available solutions.

There are many ways designers can increase their references for future use. In this article, we use "design reference" as sources of inspiration that increase our understanding of the problem or provide alternate solutions for the problem (Gongalves, Cardoso, & Badke-Schaub, 2014). Design references can come from growing up in a specific neighborhood or culture, travelling, and reading, among other personal experiences. When students are not familiar with design procedures, it is important to ground design on previous works of other professionals until they achieve a level of comfort with their own style. The idea of building upon someone else's work during a contextualized activity is an effective way of learning within a cognitive apprenticeship approach (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1993).

Sometimes professionals can look for solutions outside their realm of knowledge, in the search for a new perspective. The art and architectural movement known as "biomorphism" takes inspiration in nature forms (Kuhlmann, 2011); another similar technology movement is "biomimetics" (Pawlyn, 2011). As an example, in the field of architecture, nature has influenced architectural designs in many ways:

Nature's phenomena can include surfaces, materials and/or structures, functions, constructions, mechanisms, principles (e.g., self-organization), or processes (e.g., evolution), delivering models to be analyzed, abstracted, and applied to architectural solutions on all scales and levels of design.

(Gruber, 2011, p.131)

Figure 1 illustrates how the National Swimming Center, in Beijing, China, has been clearly inspired by the shape and texture of bubbles.

Many other disciplines can be used as references for developing a new idea, such as geometric shapes from mathematics, natural structures (such as rocks), and living beings (such as plants and animals). Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous designs, was painted a color that resembles the dried leaf of a Rhododendron tree, and Buckminster Fuller's design of geodesics is known to be inspired by mathematical shapes and patterns. This encourages students to use what they have learned in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines for developing design solutions.

Integrated STEM happens when teachers infuse two or more STEM content areas (Sanders, 2009). The following STEM lesson unit allows students to explore the science of horticulture through inquiry observations and apply this new knowledge in an engineering design task.

The engineering design challenge is to create a chair made from cardboard using one or more elements of design (line, shape, texture, color, space, size, and value), drawn from the nature reference. The cardboard chair activity is well known to technology and engineering education teachers and has been adapted for different levels of learners (Linnell, 2007). It can be used as an introductory unit for design activities that involve more complex analysis (for example physical and ergonomics studies performed in the cardboard chair activity).

The proposed lesson unit will enable students to "think outside the box" while searching for alternative solutions. It will also stimulate students to reflect on how to use nature references, by making them defend the choice in their work. Critical-thinking skills are a desirable trait for learners and are an important component of the technological literacy standards (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007). …

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