Enhancing Innovation Through Biologically Inspired Design

Marc Weissburg, Craig Tovey Craig Tovey, Jeannette Yen


Mixing upper level undergraduates majoring in engineering with those majoring in biology, we have devised a course on biologically-inspired design (BID) that provides practical training in methods and techniques that facilitate the identification and translation of biological principles into solutions for human challenges. The challenges of interdisciplinary courses generally, and the specific challenges of fostering exchange among biologists and engineers lead us to define these learning goals: (1) basic knowledge of successful examples of BID, (2) interdisciplinary communication skills, (3) knowledge about domains outside of their core training, (4) a uniquely interdisciplinary design process, and (5) how to apply existing technical knowledge to a new discipline. We developed the following course components to meet the key learning objectives: BID Lectures; Design Lectures; Found object exercises; Quantitative assessments; Analogy exercises; Research assignments; Interdisciplinary Collaboration, Mentorship; Idea Journals and Reflections. We will provide an extensive description of these elements, which we have chosen to incorporate based on our own experience with interdisciplinary communication, as well as findings from cognitive science regarding how students actually learn. This 15 week course is organized using assignments of increasing complexity that allow students to learn and apply essential skills of BID methodology and practice. Early exercises, which combine lectures, group discussions and individual assignments, have these objectives: 1) allow students to develop the necessary inter-disciplinary communication and research skills to facilitate their design project work; 2) expose students to ideation and design skills that will encourage them to work outside of their comfort zone; 3) practice the analogical reasoning skills that facilitate the successful search for and application of relevant biological concepts. This initial portion of the course stresses that BID occurs at the early phase of a design process and that identifying solutions from the biological domain requires that students have a sufficient breakdown of their problem combined with sufficient biological knowledge to suggest appropriate mappings between problem and solution. Two primary barriers are a lack of appreciation for how the evolutionary “design” process differs from human design, and the use of different terminology for describing similar processes in biology vs. engineering. We describe some teaching practices and activities that allow students to overcome these difficulties. The course culminates in a group project, which is a detailed conceptual design including a preliminary analysis of expected performance, value, and feasibility. A unique feature of the course is that it represents the efforts of not only biologists and engineers, but also contributions from cognitive scientists engaged in understanding human cognition and creativity. Our course strategy has been deeply influenced by findings in that field. We have studied the activity of classroom participants for the last three years, examining the processes they use, and intermediate and final design representations. Analysis of this has yielded a number of observations about the cognitive process of biologically inspired design that may provide insights regarding how to enhance BID education, as well as provide useful insight for professionals in the design field. Key words: biologically-inspired design (BID); interdisciplinary communication


biologically-inspired design (BID); interdisciplinary communication

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3968%2Fj.ans.1715787020100302.001


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