Photo featuring Team Futuristas of Rhinebeck, NY

If you’ve never heard of Hottentot bread and think it comes from a bakery, think again! It’s actually a plant in the yam family (Dioscorea elephantipes, also known as elephant’s foot) and the large underground tuber that inspired the middle school winners of the 2nd annual Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge (YDC). Team Futuristas, from Rhinebeck, NY, designed a permeable tile for courtyards to limit the amount of water pooling on the hardscape surface of a courtyard in their village.

At the high school level, the winning team, RHS Biomimicry, from Larkspur, CA, was inspired by the winged seeds of the Javan cucumber, Alsomitra macrocarpa. They devised a passive control system for tidal kites, a type of underwater energy generator. Other innovations honored in this year’s Challenge were inspired by the unique traits and strategies of hagfish slime, Namib beetles, oyster reefs, prairie dogs, and Saharan silver ants.

The Youth Design Challenge is a new project-based learning experience and competition for students in grades 6-12. Piloted for the first time in 2018, the program challenges students to work in teams to devise a bio-inspired solution to a problem associated with climate change adaptation or mitigation. This year, 78 teams submitted projects for consideration by the judges.

The award panel that reviewed the students’ work was universally impressed with the quality and creativity of the projects. Judge Jenji Henson of EcoRise remarked, “We would be wise to add these (and other) smart kids to the brainstorming table for countless issues we currently face. Their creativity, enthusiasm, ability to look to and be in awe of  nature, and refusal to be daunted gives me hope for a more sustainable world!” Another judge, Colleen Mahoney of Mahoney Architects, admired the teachers’ initiative in incorporating biomimicry into the students’ curriculum: “The kids who participated in the Youth Design Challenge are experiencing the wonder of nature and the ability to have ‘Aha’ moments of discovery.  I hope that they continue to be inspired by 3.8 billion years of nature’s research and development for years to come.”

Here are the winners in both the middle and high school categories. Learn more about each team in our winners’ gallery.


High School Category


First Place: Team RHS Biomimicry

Passive Control Systems for Tidal Kite Electricity Generation Systems, Redwood High School, Larkspur CA

Tidal kites “fly” in ocean currents to generate energy. Team RHS Biomimicry looked to nature for inspiration to improve on existing tidal kites, which require active control systems. Their design passively maintains stable spiral fight using an asymmetrical form inspired by the the shape and aerodynamic performance of the giant seeds of the Javan cucumber (alsomitra macrocarpa). Using 3D modeling, the team devised and tested a high-performing kite design that could increase the efficiency of tidal energy generation.


Second Place: Team Prairie Dawgz

Passive Ventilation System, The Harley School, Rochester, NY

Passive building ventilation can greatly reduce heating and cooling loads and costs for a building. Team Prairie Dawgz took inspiration from how prairie dogs’ burrows generate a Bernoulli effect for ventilation. They built prototypes to demonstrate and test the effect with multiple iterations of their design for a passively ventilated house.


Third Place: Team ROOFlection

Reflective Roof Design, Homeschool, Edmonds, WA

Team ROOFlection wanted to help communities decrease the urban heat island effect and reduce the need for air conditioning. Taking inspiration from the highly reflective hairs on the Sarahan silver ant, they came up with a system to retrofit existing buildings with retractable curved panels that reflect sunlight off of roofs. The team developed a concept, pursued further research, and consulted with an architect to improve upon their initial design.


Middle School Category


First Place: Team Futuristas

Permeable Surface, Rhinebeck, NY

This team set out to limit the amount of water flooding a courtyard in their village. They researched several organisms that channel, remove, absorb, store and filter excess water and combined what they learned. Their permeable surface design is a tile that mimics the Hottentot bread’s corky outer surface for permeability, the roots of the Black Grama Grass for filtering, and the shape of the Bromeliad and Pitcher plants to drain, channel, capture, and store water.


Second Place: Team Air2Water

Fog Collection Roofing Tile, Wilbur Wright Middle School, Munster, IA

Team Air2Water was inspired by the Namib beetle and the honeybee to create a roofing tile that harvests fog from thin air. The tiles mimic the shape of the honeycombs for strength and the superhydrophobic back of the Namib beetle to collect fog for residents of Atacama Desert, one of the driest regions in the world.


Third Place: Team Slime Fire

Water Absorbing – Water Releasing – Fire Retardant Balls, Nichols School, Buffalo, NY

Team Slime Fire focused on helping to stop the spread of wildfires. They were inspired by the properties of spiders, hagfish slime, and broom bush plants. They showed great creativity in their proposed fire retardant system of water-filled pods hung on trees like outdoor Christmas tree lights. The pods absorb and store water that is then released when exposed to extreme heat.


Honorable Mention: Team SOREP

Seagrass Oyster Reef Erosion Protection System, The Harley School, Rochester, NY

Team SOREP focused on coastal erosion and the impact of the rising ocean’s temperature on plants and organisms that naturally reduce erosion. Their solution seeks to limit erosion by mimicking oyster reefs and seagrass that reduce wave energy and slow down water currents, thereby decreasing wave size. The group displayed holistic systems-thinking by reflecting on how the presence of their design would give time for the natural organisms that do this work to repopulate.

A hearty congratulations to the winners and their coaches, as well as to all of the teams who entered the 2018 Challenge. Their creativity, enthusiasm, entrepreneurial spirit and ability to look to and be awed by nature gives us hope for a more sustainable world.

And a special thank you to the judges who volunteered their time to review the inspiring entries.

If you’re a middle or high school educator who is interested in bringing the Youth Design Challenge to your classroom, sign up here to receive more information about the next round, launching in the fall of 2019.



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