If you haven’t traveled to Indiana, you likely haven’t heard about the Indiana Dunes. Along the shores of Lake Michigan there lies an unusual, natural sand dune, created by a glacier that retreated over 12,000 years ago.  Filled with rich biodiversity, the Dunes make a perfect place for learners at any age to find inspiration from nature’s resilient adaptability.

In 2019, educators Laura Norman and Rebecca Parker at Wilbur Wright Middle School in Munster, Indiana, partnered with the Dunes Learning Center to enrich their students participation in the Biomimicry Institute’s Youth Design Challenge (YDC) with information about the local ecosystem and field study opportunities.

The Dunes Learning Center is the education partner of Indiana Dunes National Park, a part of the National Parks Service. The students visited the dunes with rangers to learn about the challenge of erosion and the adaptations of native species. They also participated in a cleanup activity that helped inspire a different type of conservation for the local ecosystem.

“The Dunes Learning Center has been a tremendous partner,” said Laura. “They were excited to work with our students and to help them discover their local ecology. The issue of erosion is particularly serious at the dunes. It was a great real-world lesson for our students to understand the challenges our local environment faces and how they can be a part of the solution.”

The partnership with the Dunes Learning Center is new, but Laura and Rebecca have been incorporating biomimicry and the YDC into their teaching for four years now. As science teachers, they initially sought a project that would connect engineering with their local environment while helping students gain critical thinking skills for solving real-world challenges.

They took to Google in 2016 and found the Biomimicry Institute’s Global Design Challenge, a competition for university students and professionals. At that time, the Youth Design Challenge had not yet been created and the Global Design Challenge allowed entries from highly motivated high school students. After requesting permission from the Institute to submit projects by middle school, Laura and Rebecca reworked their curriculum and had all of their students enter the BGDC. Although they were competing with much older students and professionals, one of the Wilbur Wright teams received an honorable mention for their design of pineapple-inspired home gutter system that collected and recycled rainwater.

The enthusiasm of students and teachers at Wilbur Wright demonstrated the need for a challenge program created specifically for middle and high school students. Launched in 2018, new YDC program provides a framework and curriculum for formal and informal educators to introduce biomimicry as an engineering design strategy, to integrate relevant purposeful STEM experiences, and to provide engaging instruction aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Laura and Rebecca and their students have continued to participate in the Youth Design Challenge every year since 2016. In fact, Wilbur Wright students have placed multiple times in the YDC competition since its inception. In 2018, Team AntHouse and Emperor Insulation received Honorable Mentions, and Coolest Building on the Block won Second Place. In 2019, Fog Collection won Second Place.

The creative confidence of the students has grown as a result of participating in the challenges. They’re motivated, and many of them look forward to pursuing college studies and careers related to science. The challenges have helped them to see science and nature in a new way

“The best thing to come from the Challenge is that our students realize how much we still don’t know about the natural world, and even the natural world that’s right outside our door,” said Rebecca. “Biomimicry teaches our students that if they look in the right places and with the right intention, there’s so much to discover, learn, and contribute to the world.”


Christa Avampato is a writer and the founder of Double or Nothing Media in New York City. She is currently a graduate student in the Biomimicry Program at ASU.

Twitter: @christanyc | Instagram: @christarosenyc

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