Can hornets, kelp, and ants help us solve climate change? These kids think so.

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Team SunTile, from Honolulu, Hawai’i

If the constant stream of bad climate news is getting you down, get ready for a big dose of hope.

This year, middle and high school students from across the U.S. took part in the first-ever Youth Design Challenge, learning how to use biomimicry to create solutions to climate change. From an oriental hornet-inspired method to increase the efficiency of solar panels, to a Saharan silver ant-inspired roof designed to stay cool in extreme heat, to a kelp and fish-inspired method of generating energy and more, these students learned to apply lessons from nature to solve tough sustainability challenges.

All of the judges and the team here at the Biomimicry Institute were blown away by the students’ creativity, depth of research, and skill at explaining their ideas. If the students in this Challenge are any indication, we think this new generation of problem-solvers — the ones growing up “bio-lingual” — will be the key to keeping our planet healthy and thriving.

Here are the winners in both the middle and high school categories. You can learn more about each team in the winners’ gallery.

High School category winners

1st Place — Team Hornet

Richland Two Institute of Innovation, Columbia, SC

This team wanted to create a more efficient way to produce renewable energy, so they created a device, based on the oriental hornet’s ability to generate electricity from sunlight with its exoskeleton, to reflect and concentrate UV rays on solar panels.

2nd Place — KimHeamTeam

Woodbridge High School, Irvine, CA

This team’s design, the Piezoelectric Kelp Forest, is designed to harness wave energy (an underutilized energy resource) by using strategically-placed synthetic kelp blades to create an electrical charge. The team studied how schools of fish conserve energy by moving in certain flow patterns to learn how best to place these kelp blades in order to maximize their energy-generation potential.

3rd Place — HuMANGROVE

The Harley School, Rochester, NY

This team mimicked the root structure of mangrove trees to create a quickly-deployable structure to battle erosion due to climate change. This solution is designed to be implemented and removed as needed and to have limited impacts on the ecosystem, since water can still flow within the structure.

Honorable mention — Emperor Insulation

Wilbur Wright Middle School and Munster High School, Munster, IN

This team wanted to create a energy-efficient way for people to prevent the pipes in their homes from bursting in cold weather. By looking at how emperor penguins stay warm in extreme cold by trapping air with the structure of their feathers, the team created an insulated pipe using non-toxic materials that helps keep the temperature of the pipe above freezing.

Honorable mention — SpiDust

Gretchen Whitney High School, Cerritos, CA

This team created a way to trap unhealthy particulate matter from cars by looking to spider webs for inspiration. This energy-efficient covering for wheels and exhaust pipes traps dust pollution using static electricity generated from the car being in motion, similar to how spider webs trap prey, pollutants, and fine dust.

Middle School category winners

1st Place — SunTile

Punahou School, Honolulu, HI

This team looked to the Saharan silver ant’s ability to reflect light, the desert scorpion’s ability to withstand sandstorms with its erosion-preventing exoskeleton, and the honeybee’s hexagonal honeycomb shape to create the Sun Tile. This innovation fits on roofs in a hexagonal pattern, and is covered in grooves to withstand erosion and microscopic prisms to reflect the sun, creating a long-lasting, sustainable way for desert homes to stay cool.

2nd Place — Coolest Building on the Block

Wilbur Wright Middle School, Munster, IN

This team wanted to create a better way to cool computer rooms, which generate a lot of heat. After studying how jackrabbits use their ears to stay cool in extreme heat, they developed a pipe system that uses flowing water in order to cool computer rooms without the use of HFC-spewing air conditioning units.

3rd Place — Team SS

Conroe, TX

This team was so eager to reduce the effects of the built environment on climate change, that they came up with TWO solutions. The first is to create shelters that are environmentally-friendly, low cost, and address climate change by constructing them out of vines, using scaffolding made out of a biodegradable material. The vines absorb CO2 and make use of local materials, preventing climate impacts from transporting traditional building materials. The second solution is to create a self-healing building by using fungal spores in building blocks, inspired by how white blood cells respond to protect open wounds from bacteria. This would prevent building material from being wasted due to breakage or needing excess material for repairs.

Honorable mention — AntHouse

Wilbur Wright Middle School, Munster, IN

This team developed an entire house that can stay cool without the use of air conditioning. By looking to the Saharan silver ant for inspiration, they created a home design with legs to keep it off the hot ground and infra-red-reflecting materials on its roof.

Honorable mention — Sequestering Carbon Dioxide Filter


This team wanted to create a way to restore our oceans back to health, so they created a filter that increases the ph levels in oceans and strengthens the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide. This filter was inspired by how dermal bones in sea turtles release calcium and magnesium carbonates into the bloodstream to reduce acidity.

Congratulations to all of the winners and their coaches, as well as all of the teams who entered the 2018 Challenge.

If you’re a middle or high school educator who is interested in bringing the Youth Design Challenge to your classroom, sign up here to receive more information about the next round, launching in Fall 2018.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet.

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