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How Does Nature Do That?

Some define biomimicry as the technology of biology. Biomimicry scientist Janine Benyus describes it as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.” To park ranger-turned-professor Margo Farnsworth, biomimicry is one of the most important new tools for sustainability. It gets her college students outside, unleashes their scientific and entrepreneurial minds, and confirms there are infinite lessons and solutions to learn from nature. This is Margo’s story

There’s something liberating about being dumped in the middle of a jungle and told to observe its organisms. You’re given permission to graze intellectually—to be a child again experiencing the wonder of nature. With that freedom you can’t help but see the multiple ways we can learn from nature.

When students apply what they’ve learned from beetles, snakes, and trees to create solutions that help other people, everyone benefits.

I embrace Biomimicry 3.8 Institute co-founder Janine Benyus’s definition of biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius”—solving human challenges by asking, “How does nature do that?”. I used biomimicry years before I read Janine’s book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature when I looked to riverside ecosystems for clues to better manage water flows. But when I discovered her book, I found I wasn’t alone. There were others out there doing this, and there were excellent hands-on ways I could bring biomimicry to my students.  

Margo Farnsworth kayaking

Kayakers on the Ghost River near Memphis, Tenn. observe how the river filters contaminants and survives flooding.

photo by Jim Pascoe

I have always referred to my career as that of a hunter-gatherer. As I looked for ways to serve as a better steward to the earth, I picked up new tools from each colleague I worked with and each job I had. Ultimately, teaching served as the best way to have a big impact and help not only organisms in the field, but people too. By teaching biomimicry, I enable my students to have that same positive impact on people, the planet, and even their future prosperity.

Biomimicry is one of many tools in our sustainability toolbox. It takes into account elements of a single organism and an entire ecosystem—the basic “life principles” under which they operate and the operating conditions here on Earth which constrain us all. By using biomimicry we see not only how an organism solves a challenge, but also where the organism gets the energy to do so, and where the waste products go when the problem is solved.


We’re using what nature uses to flourish.

The Namibian Beetle of southern Africa is a biomimicry example that has sparked a myriad of manmade products. This little beetle angles its body so that fog can accumulate on the hydrophilic nubs of its back. When the droplets are large enough, they flow down the back’s waxy, bony shield to the beetle’s mouth for sustenance. Inventors enamored with this exquisite process have developed products that channel water to collection vessels, providing water for people, trees, and gardens.


Biomimicry is also valuable in school settings, allowing students to learn directly from nature. A number of studies have shown how environmental education—and just getting kids outside—can enhance learning, help with attention problems, obesity, and a whole mélange of things schoolteachers end up dealing with, whether or not it’s in our job description.

Margo Farnsworth snake-toad

A snake's jaws provide inspiration for a biomimetic door designed by a team of Margo Farnsworth's students.

photo by Teresa Wade

So, I tell my students to go outside, pick some place quiet, and observe an organism. One student in South Carolina went to a local marsh, settled on a log, and saw a snake swallow a toad whole! Now, if you’ve never seen this—let me tell you—it isn’t a ho-hum process. The observation led that student’s team to the design of a high-rise apartment door that could separate like a snake’s jaw to accept over-sized articles, like pianos, into the building and then return to a normally operating door. My students locally sourced the materials for these doors and built them to break down into harmless components once the doors were no longer in use. Biomimicry—imitating nature to solve our human problems—encourages this out-of-the-box thinking.

Biomimicry provides a whole new landscape for teaching, and that’s what makes it exciting for a teacher like me. There are literally millions of discoveries that CAN be made by students. Much of that discovery is made through simple observation, which even younger students can enjoy. Every semester as I send students into the woods they start out timidly; then, literally by the second exercise I have students bounding back with things that they’ve found, observations they’ve made, and questions and ideas for how they could use that genius. It’s absolutely fabulous.

There are literally millions of discoveries that CAN be made by students. Much of that discovery is made through simple observation, which even younger students can enjoy.

My college students, not surprisingly, are also looking to study something they’re passionate about, and looking for ways to support themselves after graduation. Biomimicry can be a roadmap to entrepreneurship. Another pair of students, this time from west Tennessee, looked to biomimicry to save small family farms. By mimicking the way plants move water through their roots the students came up with a new way of using hydroponics, growing plants without soil, in repurposed silos. This allowed them to grow more plants in a smaller area over a longer growing season, and to help a small farm without expensive new construction. These students are now developing their business plan and preparing a prototype for testing.


Margo Farnsworth student

University student Lucas Gibbs used biomimicry of a tree to design housing for war refugees. His "Refutree" is space-efficient and keeps family units together.

Photo by Margo Farnsworth

When students apply what they’ve learned from beetles, snakes, and trees to create solutions that help other people, everyone benefits. Biomimicry University Affiliates like Lipscomb are teaching it. Biomimicry hubs are forming around the world. LinkedIn is connecting practitioners in new and promising ways. We really are only limited by the hours in a day.

The fact that biomimicry can be applied at so many scales while providing a solution pathway to restorative fixes makes it incredibly valuable and thrilling. We can look at the structure and behavior of a creature like the beetle or energy collection capacity of a forest. We can look at the mooring system of bull kelp, which forms the base for bioWAVE’s energy collection systems in the ocean—no petro chemicals needed! In these, we can find powerful new tools for our sustainability toolbox.

We’re using what nature uses to flourish. My students win because they have “real life” experiences and opportunities after graduation. And because it’s biomimetic, the Earth wins too.

 

 

Interested in more about biomimicry?

EXPLORE: Biomimicry 3.8 Institute

VISIT: Biomimicry 3.8 Institute University Student Design Challenge. Working with Water: The Wyke Beck (Margo Farnsworth, advisor)

READ: YES! Magazine "What Would Nature Do?" (Winter 2013)

 


 

Margo Farnsworth MugMargo Farnsworth wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Margo teaches Biomimicry and Integrated Ecological Systems Solutions at Lipscomb University’s Institute of Sustainable Practices. She also works as a consultant in strategic development for environmental organizations and businesses working on sustainability in the U.S. and abroad. Margo and her husband Jim live with a menagerie of furred and feathered friends on their Missouri farm.

 


YES! Archive

 

 

Can a boat be designed to clean the water? How does a spider manufacture resilient fiber? We need products that don’t harm us or the environment, and nature’s already done the research.

The YES! Breakthrough 15: Designing the world’s greenest building standards.

Today, at a time of multiple crises, we need to move away from thinking of nature as dead matter to valuing her biodiversity, clean water, and seeds. For this, nature herself is the best teacher.

 


The above resources accompany the February 2013 YES! Education Connection Newsletter

 

READ NEWSLETTER:  What can nature teach us? :: If chalkboards could talk

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