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General Card #704
Butterflies, Termites, and Mollusks Oh My! - Helping Students Make Connections for Bio-inspired Innovation
Updated: 10/14/2022 3:10 PM by Michael Johnson
Reviewed: 10/14/2022 3:11 PM by Michael Johnson
A technique for integrating bio-inspired design in engineering from ASEE 2019
Showing engineering students the significance and utility of bio-inspired (or biomimicry) design is easy, but teaching them how to do bio-inspired design is much more difficult.  When not scaffolded, students tend to create bio-inspired concepts that are pure science fiction or closely resemble biological imitation, meaning the concepts look or act like the biological system observable characteristics.  This card shares an instructional technique for teaching bio-inspired design to engineering students based on the concept-knowledge (C-K) theory of design that scaffolds the discovery and knowledge transfer processes involved in using natural designs to inspire engineering solutions.  The hallmark of this technique is the BID canvas (formerly called the C-K map template) that visually structures the thought processes or mindset of bio-inspired design.  We have found conclusive evidence of learning impact of design theory based bio-inspired design pedagogy. It has been shown with statistical significance to help students create bio-inspired concepts that are of higher quality than other methods as published in the ASEE 2019 manuscript linked below.  With scaffolding, students tend to successfully abstract biological system principles to create concepts that more closely resemble biological inspiration, meaning learning from nature to innovate rather than copying, that are also feasible.

This technique has been successfully integrated within a second-year engineering design course, but could be adapted to a capstone design course or an engineering science course with a project.

The Instructional Resource folder contains the complete set of documents needed to adopt this technique for teaching bio-inspired design.  They are the following:
- A 100 min. lecture (could be split into two 50 min. lectures) in 3 file formats that includes two learning activities
- A blank BID canvas and instructions for filling it in
- A partially filled in BID canvas for the Flectofin example
- A rubric for evaluating BID canvases 
- An example assignment
- Four student work examples

The Papers / Posters folder contains multiple published manuscripts on our C-K based approach.

This technique is used in a second-year engineering design course.  These students are in the first semester of the engineering design sequence of the curriculum and are learning the engineering design process while applying the tools and methods to a course project. The topic of bio-inspired design is taught during the concept generation phase of the design process.  All students receive a lecture on bio-inspired design in a single 100 minute class period.  The lecture has three parts: (1) design by analogy, (2) fundamentals of bio-inspired design with many examples, and (3) the C-K instructional approach with individual and group active learning activities.

All assignments in the course tie to a year-long course project of developing a human powered vehicle for a client in the community that has cerebral palsy, including the bio-inspired design assignment.  To integrate bio-inspired design into the human powered vehicle design project, each member of a team applies bio-inspired design to a different sub-system (e.g., propulsion, steering, braking) of their design to showcase a variety of design problems and analogies that enable bio-inspired design.  All students complete the BID canvas three times, twice in class as part of learning activities to understand the process of bio-inspired design and again in their assignment to scaffold application to the human powered vehicle.

Connections to the KEEN Framework:
The process of bio-inspired design requires identification of biological inspiration sources using a search technique or database, intuitive knowledge, or communicating with experts.  Once a set of inspiring biological organisms or phenomena are identified, they are studied further to facilitate knowledge transfer to the problem task.  Engaging in bio-inspired design evokes reductive curiosity (wanting to know) and situational curiosity.

As the process continues, the type of curiosity changes.  Analysis of biological systems leads to a deeper understanding of the inspiration sources which can then result in abstractions for analogy mapping.  The final step is to generate concepts and select those that can be moved forward to the embodiment phase of the traditional engineering design process.  It is in the feedback loop of transfer and apply–investigating a biological inspiration source and applying the learned knowledge by generating new concepts–that the discovery of innovative bio-inspired solutions occurs.  These later process steps evoke the epistemic curiosity (asking why) and diverse curiosity (asking what if).

Making connections is a necessity in bio-inspired design.  Specifically, the investigation of the intersection of seemingly disparate ideas from biology and a technical domain such as engineering. Incorporating other STEM disciplines into complex engineering problems will create a new context for undergraduate students to apply knowledge that they already have.  Most students that go into engineering have high school level training in biology.  Adding bio-inspired design into the engineering curriculum encourages students to utilize and build off their prior knowledge, which fosters making connections and recognizing interrelationships across STEM disciplines. Moreover, requiring knowledge transfer across domains as well as organizing that knowledge into logical constructs helps to develop future flexibility and adaptive expertise that will facilitate innovation and efficiency. Having to retrieve and transfer knowledge from domains outside of engineering forces students to adapt to unfamiliar languages and content formats (which addresses non-technical skills) in order to apply the biological information intelligently to engineering problems (which addresses technical skills).  

C-K theory is known for integrating multiple domains of information and facilitating innovation through connection building.  Innovation is the direct result of moving between the two spaces by using the addition of new and existing concepts to expand knowledge, and using knowledge to expand concepts. Knowledge is therefore not restricted to being a solution space, but rather is leveraged to improve understanding of the innovative designs.  C-K theory thus provides a framework for a designer to navigate the unknown, to build and test connections between the K and C spaces, and to converge on a solution grounded in theory combined with new knowledge.

Creating Value:
Bio-inspired design is a disruptive approach to innovation and can lead to the discovery of of non-conventional solutions to problems that are often more efficient, economic and elegant.  Biological systems often have solved similar problems in an  opposite way to traditional engineering approaches.  This allows the identification of unexpected opportunities to create extraordinary value across the engineering landscape.

Bio-inspired design touches on many areas of engineering including electrical, mechanical, materials, biomedical, chemical, manufacturing and systems, which makes it applicable in a wide range of engineering programs and courses, from discipline-specific to general ones.
Learning Objectives
- Articulate the fundamentals of bio-inspired design and innovation
- Understand the potential for application of bio-inspired design and innovation to engineering problems
- Apply the bio-inspired design process using the BID canvas
- Evaluate the connections made between biology and engineering
Instructor Tips
- This technique assumes the students have little to no experience with bio-inspired design.
- Starting with design by analogy before bio-inspired design primes students for making connections.
- The first learning activity of flectofin is an individual exercise that exposes students to the mindset of bio-inspired design.  Although most second-year students have not taken a course in materials or mechanics the elastic deformation that occurs during lateral torsional buckling can be demonstrated using an index card with a small fold on the long edge.
- The second learning activity of the human powered vehicle sub-system is meant to be closely aligned with the course project to help students understand how bio-inspired design can be applied to their key deliverable for the course.  Time permitting, this example should be tailored to be in alignment with the course project of the class it is implemented in.  It is good to allow students to work in teams for this learning activity.
- Do not tell the students they are using C-K theory to learn and apply bio-inspired design.  That can result in cognitive overload.  Rather, present the concept and knowledge spaces as a way to organize the different sets of information that they will be working with, and that the BID canvas is the visual guide.
  • Demonstrate constant curiosity about our changing world
  • Explore a contrarian view of accepted solution
  • Integrate information from many sources to gain insight
Creating Value
  • Identify unexpected opportunities to create extraordinary value
  • Persist through and learn from failure
  • Develop New Technologies
  • Perform Technical Design
  • Identify Opportunity
Categories & Tags
  • Classroom & Courses
  • Comprehensive
This work was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant #1504612.
This folder contains the resources for teaching the C-K theory based instructional technique to bio-inspired design.
Title Type Ext Date Size Download All Downloads
BID Canvas Activity / Handout .pdf 6/11/2021 18 KB 761
BID Canvas Guidelines Activity / Handout .pdf 6/11/2021 85.3 KB 753
Flectofin Learning Activity Activity / Handout .pdf 7/13/2019 1 MB 733
BID Canvas Rubric Assessment / Rubric .pdf 6/11/2021 32.4 KB 764
Example Assignment Other .docx 7/13/2019 116.6 KB 736
Bio-inspired Design Lecture in Keynote Presentation .key 7/13/2019 9.7 MB 745
Bio-inspired Design Lecture in PowerPoin Presentation .pptx 7/13/2019 8.1 MB 812
Bio-inspired Design Lecture as PDF Presentation .pdf 7/13/2019 5.7 MB 761
Student work example Student Artifact / Example .pdf 7/11/2019 311.9 KB 735
Student work example 2 Student Artifact / Example .pdf 7/11/2019 317.8 KB 729
Student work example 3 Student Artifact / Example .pdf 7/11/2019 248 KB 793
Student work example 4 Student Artifact / Example .pdf 7/11/2019 278.2 KB 730
(Old Name) C-K Map Template Activity / Handout .pdf 6/11/2021 14.1 KB 743
(Old Name) C-K Map Template Guidelines Activity / Handout .pdf 6/11/2021 85.8 KB 724
(Old Name) C-K Map Rubric Assessment / Rubric .pdf 6/11/2021 33 KB 737
This folder contains the ASEE 2019 paper, a 2019 Biocene poster, as well as other publications that support the C-K theory based instructional technique.
Title Type Ext Date Size Download All Downloads
Poster explaining BID Canvas Innovation Photo / Graphic .pdf 6/11/2021 294.3 KB 703
Link to ASEE 2019 DEED Paper Journal / Article 6/11/2021 -  
ASEE 2019 DEED Paper Journal / Article .pdf 6/11/2021 4.9 MB 784
Link to ASEE 2019 NSF Poster Paper Journal / Article 6/11/2021 -  
ASEE 2017 NSF Grantees Poster Paper Journal / Article .pdf 6/11/2021 2.4 MB 788
ASME DEC Paper Journal / Article .pdf 6/11/2021 1.3 MB 759
BBN Jounral Paper Journal / Article .pdf 6/11/2021 338.1 KB 710
BID Engineering Curriculum Book Chapter Journal / Article .pdf 6/11/2021 4.7 MB 766