When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the average age of their supporting NASA Houston engineers was 26. President Kennedy had announced ten years prior, “We choose to go to the moon,” and that bold ambition inspired an entire generation of high school students, then aged 15 and 16, to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Today human ingenuity needs to be focused back here on Earth. But just as before, we have a new generation of middle and high school students orienting toward a new paradigm. This time it is looking deeply at nature and what we can learn from the patterns and processes found in biology.

For the third year in a row, the Biomimicry Institute has been working with educators to bring the process of nature-inspired design into their classrooms and after-school programs through our Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge (YDC). In this project-based learning program, middle and high school students collaborate in teams to solve sustainability problems, with nature as their guide.

“Right now, there’s nothing better suited to teach kids than nature,” said Billy Almon, Biology-inspired futurist, Animal Planet T.V. Host, and one of this year’s expert judges. “The Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge allows us to bake in mathematics, engineering, physics, architecture, and design in ways that the classroom currently does not allow. It’s the perfect kind of challenge we need in times like this.”

This year the Institute reached approximately 6,000 students across the US with the YDC curriculum, and despite the disruption schools faced moving to digital learning mid-semester, 60 educator-nominated projects were submitted to the competition. We congratulate each and every team that worked on a biomimicry project this year, whether or not it was completed or submitted. We hope those unable to complete their project due to disruptions in the school year will keep learning from nature and consider submitting to next year’s challenge.

We now proudly announce the 2020 winners! From an evaporative cooling system inspired by the Texas Horned Lizard to protecting coral reefs with a solution inspired by tree canopies and Orb Weaver Spiders, this year’s YDC champions are worthy of celebration for their curiosity, ingenuity, and creative problem-solving.

High School Category


First Place

Team Designmatter with Project “The Moist Brick”

Orange Cube Art, La Crescenta, CA

To solve for extreme changes in weather and provide a solution for natural cooling, the Designmatter team created the Moist Brick, a concept for a building material that would condense water from nighttime air and collect it on the surface as an evaporative cooling system for buildings. They were inspired by the hydrophilic hairs on the surface of some plants and the Texas Horned Lizard, which uses capillary action to move water from anywhere on its skin to its mouth.

The brick’s curvilinear form not only mimics the ‘horns’ of the lizard, but also to allow each brick to partially shade itself and its neighbors when they are stacked and assembled as a wall. Learning from nature never felt so cool!

The judges were impressed by the team’s well thought out problem statement and thorough biomimicry design process. They also noted that building products that could directly affect the energy usage of structures is a needed trend.

“I enjoyed seeing how the Designmatter team took a problem, looked at the nature-inspired termite mounds and other technology that already exists, and identified the inherent limitations of the existing solutions. They identified a niche and designed a basic building product that could be used by anyone, not just a professional builder. The Moist Brick is an intriguing and unique design that could be implemented in different applications.”  — Laura Arndt, Founding Director, Global GreenSTEM

Second Place

Team SONA with Project “A Concrete Solution”

Hopewell Valley Central High School, Pennington, NJ

Inspired by their research on bamboo stems, pomelo peels, and honeycombs, the SONA team created an alternative to concrete barriers to protect cyclists and pedestrians from vehicles. Their goal was to encourage more people to use their pedal power rather than rely on greenhouse gas emitting vehicles. A Concrete Solution supports behavioral change within communities, while decreasing air pollution that worsens respiratory illnesses and causes imbalances in our global climate.

The judges were particularly excited for this design, because safer cycling solutions are needed across the nation and their modular design could have wide application. Further, the SONA team’s design stood out for their strong research into biological models and how they explored multiple possible design solutions before settling on a final concept.

“The SONA team thought about a design to encourage a behavior that many of us don’t think of as safe. Safety barriers for cycling can help the environment and communities — they really thought about different issues here in a creative, locally inspired way that meets global needs.” — Kathy Zarsky, Founder, BiomimicryTX

Third Place

Team BayProtector with Project “The BayProtector”

Corona del Mar High School, Newport Beach, CA

This group of 9th graders sought to solve the issue of eutrophication caused by nutrient pollution (nitrogen) entering their local watershed and looked to nature to propose a solution that is inexpensive, compact, and versatile. Eutrophication occurs when excess nutrients within water bodies produce algae blooms, which then deplete oxygen levels in the water, harming aquatic life. Their design, the BayProtector, removes excess nitrogen from stormwater and is inspired by the small intestine. The team looked first at villi, small structures found lining the small intestine, which assist with nutrient absorption. Next, they recognized the small intestine’s high surface area and meandering shape as inspiration to further improve the design.

The judges remarked on how pleased they were that the team incorporated testing results and feedback into their design process and understood the multiple strategies of their biological model that made it successful.

“I love that this team found a local issue that affects their community. I appreciated the level of description and considerations put into the design during the entire process. They did a great job asking experts, and the design was done with a high quality and looked very professional.” — Timothy Bingham, Career Pathway Specialist, San Francisco USD Office of College and Career Readiness

There were so many outstanding candidates in the high school category this year that the judges had a hard time picking winners. To recognize another team that deserved acknowledgement for their nature-inspired creative thinking and dedication toward solving a local challenge, they awarded an Honorable Mention to the next top contender.


Honorable Mention

Team Irvine with Project “The AquaCycle”

Irvine High School, Irvine, CA

The AquaCycle is a concept for replacing conventional air conditioning systems in a building. Learning from the adaptations of animals that live in hot environments, including giraffes and the Saharan silver ant, Team Irvine designed a building system with water-filled pipes that mimic the giraffe’s capillaries and ‘thermal windows” to absorb heat. The hot water then cycles to the roof where it is cooled in an evaporator.

The judges commended the team for their thorough research on thermal regulation in nature and how they considered a wide variety of biological solutions before determining which would be most effective.

“The AquaCycle was created with a great tribute to biological models, and the Irvine team demonstrated that they understand the key mechanisms and how to apply them to this important problem. That’s what we hope to come from the Youth Design Challenge – creative, critical thinking to the challenges we face.” — Puja Batra, Ecologist & Independent Consultant

Middle School Category


First Place

Team Matinor with Project “The Dome Home”

Blue School, New York, NY

Team Matinor incorporated inspiration from the multiple organisms to design a home that could withstand extreme weather in the Carribean — a region facing increasing risk from hurricanes due to climate change. The Dome Home mimics the dome shape of an ovenbird’s mud nest to withstand high winds, the deep tap root of the longleaf pine to anchor the foundation, and the unique structure of the woodpecker’s skull to absorb shock.

The judges felt the Dome Home was a great example for the spirit of biomimicry, looking closely at how nature manages physical forces, and effectively combining strategies from multiple biological models. The team also thoughtfully addressed the limitations in the design and areas for additional research and development.

“They focused on adaptation – which is an important concept for our society, especially when it comes to thinking about housing for people. I liked the way the Matinor team documented their process in terms of looking for function, finding biological models to do the functions, and integrating creative use of various different models to meet multiple functions for the Dome Home concept.” — Mary Hansel, Operations Manager, New Buildings Institute

Second Place

Team Reef Guardians with Project “Reef Guard”

Wheatland Center School, Burlington, WI

The Reef Guard is a concept for protecting coral reefs from UV radiation and rising ocean temperatures that cause coral bleaching. This team created a floating underwater shade structure inspired by giant lily pads and the UV-reflecting properties of Orb Weaver spiders’ webs. The team was commended by the judges for their strong engineering design process and testing and refinement of key components of the design.

“The problem choice from the Reef Guardians was excellent. Bleaching of coral reefs is an incredibly important issue to address. I actually learned how the bleaching process works from their research and had not realized the algae connection. Their research is commendable, and the engineering they applied and the testing they did was very impressive.” — Scott Randall, Informal STEM Education Strategist, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Third Place

Team Wind Dancers with Project
“Slow and Steady Wins the Fashion Race”

Wind Dance Farm & Earth Education Center, Berkeley Springs, WV

Team Windancers focused on the climate impacts of fast fashion and created a social awareness campaign that demonstrates how biomimicry can be applied in many ways and is not limited only to the creation of objects. After thoroughly researching the problem, the team recognized that changing consumer behavior was essential, and focused their efforts there. They looked to nature to guide how they could get the word out, learning from bees and sheep to develop their strategy. The team was applauded by the judges for the depth of their research into the problem, evidence of systems thinking, and original approach.

“This project is a great example of understanding how biomimicry can be used to influence behavior and how we act collectively as a society. I love the Wind Dancers’ solution, because when we’re looking at climate change, or any other sustainable development goal that society is seeking to achieve, the needed systems change depends also on behavioral change.” — Jennifer Breslin, Director, Futuristas

At the Biomimicry Institute, increasing access to nature-inspired education that meets the needs of educators is at the core of our mission. We are proud of the teams recognized here — and all of the teams that participated in this year’s Challenge. Thank you to the coaches and judges that offered their time and expertise to empower these students with creative, critical thinking skills and the hope for solving the biggest challenges that our planet faces. We also could not do this powerful work without the generous support of our donors who help us keep this project-based learning program free and accessible to students across the nation.

“It’s really exciting to see the curiosity about the world that these students have brought to the Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge experience,” said Jennifer Breslin, one of this year’s YDC judges and Director of Futuristas. “It’s reinforced for them as they explore solutions inspired by nature.”

Curious about how to get involved in next year’s Youth Design Challenge or support our mission in bringing nature-inspired curriculum to schools across the nation? Visit youthchallenge.biomimicry.org.



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