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Next in STEM Innovation and Education: Taking Cues from Nature

Sandy—What do a shark, an ant, a gecko and a firefly have in common?

They all have unique traits that scientists and engineers are taking inspiration from to develop the technologies of the future.

“Innovation inspired by nature can improve existing [inventions], but it can also inspire new ones,” said Sam Stier, founding director of the Center for Learning with Nature.

Speaking as the keynote address at the STEM Best Practices Conference Tuesday to a crowd of educators, administrators and business leaders, Stier said in addition to inspiring people working in STEM fields, nature can stoke the imaginations of budding scientists, engineers, architects and computer programmers in the classroom.

“This application can energize students through natural design,” he said.

Among the new tech taking cues from nature is a new type of textured plastic, modeled after shark skin. Shark skin is covered with microscopic ridges that help it glide through water faster, but also make it difficult for bacteria to cling to. Plastic with similar ridges has been developed and is being used in hospitals, since its antimicrobial surface prevents bacteria from multiplying but doesn’t run the same risk of creating antibiotic-resistant “super bugs” the same way frequent sterilization does.

When ants go searching for food, they leave pheromone trails behind them, and if they find a good source of food, they follow their trail back and forth to make it stronger. Ants innately follow the strongest pheromone trail, so when they encounter the reinforced trail, they abandon their own and follow the path to food, further strengthening the scent of the path so as many ants as possible can rally around the food source. Computer programmers are using this same type of logic to help find faster travel and delivery routes.

Engineers have mimicked the texture of the pads on gecko feet to make devices that help people scale even sheer walls of glass. The outer anatomy of fireflies has been applied to the chassis holding LED bulbs to improve efficiency by 55 percent. Other innovations borrow from coral reefs, trees, butterflies and birds, Stier said.

When teachers have implemented nature-based learning into their existing STEM curriculum, Stier said, students have latched onto the idea. According to 2012 research from Mycollege Options and STEMconnector cited by Stier, students were three times more likely to report being more interested in engineering after nature-based STEM learning than the national average, and female students were five times more likely to report being more interested than the national average.

Students are often more likely to explore possibilities of nature-based innovation themselves after seeing connections made in the classroom, as well, Stier said. Student ideas have included slippers that leave trails behind them like slugs to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia remember their way around the house, and a compactable sled that looks much like a giant pill bug. Stier said teachers can incorporate nature-based STEM learning into their curriculum even in urban areas—nature doesn’t need to be exotic to be inspiring.

And students aren’t the only ones inspired, he said—teachers also often find that approach to be more a more interesting and engaging way to convey the information than more by-the-book approaches.

“If you teachers are excited by what you’re teaching, you can inspire your students, too,” Stier said.