100 students. Five teachers. Nine weeks.
One big challenge.
How a group of teachers from San Diego’s Kearny High School challenged their “city kids” to fix our food system using biomimicry.
You probably had a class that focused on math, one that focused on reading and writing, and another that focused on a particular science. Most likely, these were completely separate subjects with totally different curricula. Now, imagine how cool it would have been to learn about the world in a new way–by working to solve one of the world’s biggest sustainability challenges.
For students at Kearny High School’s Foster School of Engineering, Innovation and Design in San Diego, CA, this was a reality. In January 2015, a team of teachers incorporated the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge on food systems into the entire 10th grade curriculum, challenging the students to design a healthier food system using biomimicry.
“This [kind of initiative] is a great thing you can do with project-based learning and why we love our school so much,” said Kearny High English teacher Emily Liebenberg.
After watching Michael Pawlyn’s TED talk, teacher Tim Bingham quickly realized that biomimicry’s combination of innovation, science, and nature made it the perfect basis for an interdisciplinary initiative at the school.
Bingham, Liebenberg, Educational Specialist Diane Conti, and two other teachers spent weeks researching and developing a curriculum that was based entirely around the design challenge. In English class, the students researched food system issues. In biology, they learned about the diverse ways organisms in nature function. In the Introduction to Green Technology class, students applied the research they did in English class and the natural applications they learned about in biology to design nature-inspired solutions to food systems problems. They then spent time back in English class writing pitches and summaries of their designs and creating videos about their innovations.
The results absolutely blew the teachers away. From researching frog mucus to create a better way to maintain soil moisture, to mimicking moth cocoons to design better food packaging, to emulating the properties of honey to keep fruits and vegetables fresh longer, the students learned about biomimicry by practicing it in action. The school even submitted three of the student teams’ designs to a district-wide science competition and won second place.
Sophomore Gregory Mogusu’s team developed a new kind of greenhouse that functions like a beehive does. “You have to consider different needs before you create a product,” said Mogusu. “Something special about biomimicry is that we use nature’s ways to solve our problems and that affects nature less than other ways of designing.” Mogusu said that, after learning about food systems issues in class, he started to change his whole diet. “I learned about food problems, GMOs, and how pesticides affect the soil where the food grows. I learned that food comes from really far-away places,” he said.
Classmate Elizabeth Cruz Soto said that she also learned a lot about problems in our food system, including food waste. Her team’s design focused on a way to keep food fresher longer, inspired by moths’ cocoons. “When you slice a piece of banana, after 5-10 minutes, it turns brown. When you put it in our container, it stays fresh longer,” she said. To her, the hardest part was putting all the research and design work together in a way that people would understand.
“Our students were challenged in a good way; in an attainable way,” said Liebenberg. “They struggled and it was beautiful because they wanted to get it right.”
Our students were challenged in a good way; in an attainable way. They struggled and it was beautiful because they wanted to get it right.Emily Liebenberg
What made it even more challenging was the diverse needs of the sophomore class, which included students for whom English is not their first language, and students who have learning disabilities. At the Foster School, over 70% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a measure commonly used to quantify the poverty level of the student population.
Educational Specialist Diane Conti’s advice to other educational professionals who want to incorporate the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge into an interdisciplinary curriculum is to spend a lot of time planning with teachers on their team. “You need common planning time,” she said. “Have time together before and throughout the school year and become familiar with resources.”
Conti said that the students began with AskNature, the Biomimicry Institute’s online database of over 1,600 examples of nature’s design strategies. She said it was the perfect starting point for the students to begin to wrap their brains around biomimicry and how it can address sustainability challenges. “These are city kids with not much access to ‘cool nature’,” Conti said. “AskNature is a good place to learn about the cool ways nature works. Students could get more context about natural phenomena and have a bigger pool to pull ideas from.”
The teachers also brought in as many experts as possible, including Jacques Chirazi, Program Manager for the Clean Tech Initiative for the City of San Diego and founder of the Biomimicry San Diego network, to speak to the students and serve as a resource.
The teachers said they would love to incorporate biomimicry into future classes. “When you bring nature into a project, the kids get really excited. It makes it more engaging,” said Liebenberg. “[Biomimicry is] such a growing thing that’s gaining popularity, and they felt like they were on the brink of something exciting.”