Greeting this Technological World with Nature at Home and in the Classroom
“Biomimicry builds off of a child’s natural curiosity, and it allows students to discover how things (evolved into) its current state. It allows students to see the differences and similarities in nature. It allows learners to become heroes of their own learning… and allows diverse learners to reflect on the past to find solutions to present situations.” — Billy Almon
COVID-19, rapid climate change, racial tension, and political unrest have impacted Earth’s entire ecosystem; and in light of the ongoing global changes, teachers, parents, and students are getting creative in transforming the educational landscape. Whether at home, at school, or virtually online, there are a myriad of ways to tap into nature’s lesson plans to find inspiration, hope, healing, and creative problem solving techniques.
During August’s Biomimicry Fireside Chat, a diverse group of educators came together to discuss ways to embrace STEM learning, while incorporating biomimicry into the academic curriculum so young people can connect with nature in fun ways across virtual and physical learning environments. The guest panel included elementary teacher and author Karen Ansberry, Biomimicry Professional and Wildlife TV Host Billy Almon, Co-founder of the Xploration Centre Sukhi Bal, and Biomimicry Professional and educator Daniel Kinzer.
During the Fireside Chat, dozens of educators shared their favorite nature-based, STEM resources in the chat on Zoom; and as part of this article, we will share the ever-evolving list below, along with ways to follow all of the panelists’ work, and invite the whole community to join us in redesigning the way young people learn about science and nature.
Addressing the Current State of Education
“Sometimes it takes some things to be broken in order for it to be fixed and rebuilt,” says Sukhi Bal. We’ve seen that with disturbance comes rehabilitation, and time and time again through ecological history, Earth has proven resilient in its regeneration. Our human-made systems are no different.
From Honolulu, Hawaii, Daniel Kinzer shared that in his remote area of the globe, geologists use a term referred to as Kīpuka. Kīpuka is a surviving patch of forest land surrounded by one or more younger lava flows. Seeds of life are left behind that will eventually repopulate the land on this surviving patch of forest, and other seeds will be carried in the wind and float across the ocean to grow on new land. “Not only do ecosystems have the ability to rebuild themselves in Hawaii, but this phenomena occurs globally in deserts and in places like California and Australia that recently experienced natural wildfires,” said Daniel. “Ecosystems are so brilliant that they are able to grow back.”
How might we learn from nature to redesign the systems that we currently have after they face disturbance? Is it possible to look to this forced pause, the Great Reset, as an opportunity to fix and redesign our educational system?
A way to begin this process is to look at what resources we have available and come together as a community to prioritize those most valuable for our youth. When we offer young people a new perspective, the opportunities for their imaginations to run wild are endless. As Lex Amore, Communications Director and biomimicry leader for the Institute, offered during the opening remarks: “Biomimicry is not only a pathway to creating nature inspired design, but also a beautiful, connected, and purpose filled lens for how we live and behave in this world.”
Why Nature and Biomimicry Are Important Resources for Engaging Youth
“There’s the idea of going outside, and then there’s the idea of connecting to nature. Sometimes those things are the same, and sometimes they can be different,” said Billy Almon. When learners are connected with nature it awakens a sense of wonder. Billy shared how we can connect with nature everywhere, including in simple ways like the grocery store:
“I know a lot of places where families live in urban centers, and there’s not necessarily a lot of parks or available outdoor spaces… but nature is ever present. It’s in our bodies. It’s in the microbes in our stomach. It’s in the apple that we get from the grocery store — all of these things we consume as food, that we see out of our window, or even the bugs that kind of make us nervous, are aspects of nature. And there’s also the science that’s connected to why those things are there and how they’ve come to be. So when we’re talking about connecting to nature, I think it’s very important that we also understand that there’s so many different aspects to our everyday life that we might not identify as being natural elements that actually are.”
Biomimicry connects learners of all ages with nature beyond the four walls of the classroom. As a practice and a lens to view the world, it gives students the freedom to engage with nature holistically with their hands and hearts in addressing real-world learning experiences. Biomimicry allows students to develop a sense of wonder, awe, and appreciation for nature using their own imagination. Equally important, biomimicry gives students the opportunity to ask questions about the past and how they have evolved to fit into the now. As a practice, it gives learners the freedom to design, create, and invent innovative technologies by looking to nature’s blueprints for intentional, creative direction.
“Students have a natural curiosity to connect with nature,” said Daniel. “It is important to allow students to connect with nature while at school and at home. All of us share a DNA that is connected to the rest of life.” He added how it was important to encourage students to connect with the diversity of life regardless of where they are, noting how “nature brings out the unique genius in every learner.”
When we learn about biomimicry, it may not be obvious how it can be learned ‘inside’ or how nature can be accessed safely ‘outside’ during times of COVID. “It can be challenging to get outside in high density areas, but for the vast majority of us, research proves that it is safer to get outside and explore nature,” said Sukhi. “Studies prove that being outside in space is a safe way for teachers, families, and students to improve their mental, physical, and emotional health.”
Sukhi added, “I believe that kids will fall in love with nature if we get them outdoors. Their sense of wonder and awe will be awakened by connecting them with nature.” She believes students will become good stewards of land if adults spend time with them outdoors, and keep them connected with nature. For tips on how to go outside safely with kids in times of COVID, Harvard Medical School shares some ideas.
Not only does biomimicry encourage young people to connect with themselves and the natural world, it also meets Next Generation Science Standards as a formal practice for educators to bring into the classroom. “I see biomimicry as an awesome instructional approach. It’s a way of looking at the world, and it can help us to learn how to live on our planet without harming it,” said Karen Ansberry. “There is a first grade standard that asks students to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants or animals use their parts. That is biomimicry! Biomimicry is truly multidisciplinary, because it requires collaboration among disciplines like life science, space science, physical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. You can teach a lot of content in a really engaging and meaningful way. So even though you don’t see that word in the standards, you have our permission to teach it!”
For middle and high school educators looking to incorporate biomimicry into their curriculum, the Youth Design Challenge (YDC) is a great place to start. The online project-based learning experience provides a framework for formal and informal educators to introduce biomimicry as an engineering design strategy and integrate relevant purposeful STEM experiences. Educators interested in the YDC are encouraged to sign up for a webinar on September 24 with Laura Arndt, lead writer of curriculum provided for theYDC This virtual conversation will explore innovative ways for integrating the YDC into your unique COVID-flexible instructional model.
Tips from on the Panelists Bringing Nature into the Learning Experience:
- Be mindful of what we are exposing our children to and find ways to incorporate nature as a teacher. What can be learned from the backyard? What plants are living in your home? Rather than putting students in front of a screen without cognition, how can you introduce them to a nature documentary or a creative lesson with natural elements in your neighborhood?
- Allow children to explore, be creative, and collaborate together.
- Find balance in nature away from technology.
- Use natural materials to do art projects, like pinecones, fallen leaves, or sticks.
- Look to alternative educational models. There are many examples out in the world now that are transforming the classroom to meet the balanced needs of nature and technology.
- Keep the lesson simple.
- Encourage students to use their five senses to connect with nature.
- Realize that nature is everywhere — from an apple to the human body to a patch of grass. There is much to learn all around us.
- Look for patterns in nature. When we look at a leaf, what shapes do we see? Where do we see these shapes in other natural elements? What does it do for these organisms and how are the patterns connected?
- Be responsive. Look at how the content you are teaching is received by students. Is it resonating with them? Do they feel connected?
- Encourage children to observe natural phenomena outdoors.
- Guide learners to the “What if” questions.
- Incorporate nature books into the curriculum.
- Teach empathy through nature books. When kids become aware of something, they can learn to care about it.
- There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes! Dress kids appropriately, and the classroom can go outdoors all year round.
- Teach the process of taking in signals and responding to them. These feedback loops help shape our brain and allow us to respond better in the future.
- We don’t have to always be connected to the screen. Going outside as much as possible adds value.
- Community partners, businesses, nonprofits, and other leaders can be teachers and share new information that connects young people with their local ecosystem.
- Encourage students to pursue their own unique talents and unique gifts in their unique environments.
- Relay to young people that they have the opportunity to have a real impact in their communities by looking to nature as their teacher.
There is enough evidence that shows people of all ages can benefit emotionally, mentally, physically, and cognitively by connecting with nature. For youth, it’s about giving them the right access, and for educators, about knowing where to start in transforming their educational materials to bring in the science of nature. As Sukhi says, “Students are our future leaders, and they need time to decompress in nature. Nature is our primary teacher. We are nature. It is important to find balance between nature and technology, and the goal is to create a new realm of digital learning.”
Additional resources for parents, teachers, and diverse leaders to read, discuss, reflect on, and share:
Biomimicry and STEM-based Activities for the Classroom
- AskNature’s Sharing Biomimicry with Young People
- Back to School, Back to Nature (More resources on Asking Nature)
- Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge (Join us on September 24 for an instructional webinar on how to get started with the YDC. Register here.)
- Biomimicry with Young Children Resources Collected by Åsa Jomård
- EcoRise Curriculum
- Global GreenSTEM
- Green School International
- Learning in Places Project
- NC State’s Public Science Lab Teaching Resources
- NSTA: STEM, Plants & Biomimicry Lesson Plan
- PBS Lesson plan: How mimicking nature inspires new inventions
- Project Green Schools
- Project Learning Tree
- STEM Teaching Tools
- Teach Engineering: Biomimicry Natural Designs Hands-on Activity
- The Center for Learning with Nature
- The Story of Velcro and more stories to engage & inspire young people with biomimicry by Dorna Schroeter
- The Walking Curriculum: Evoking Wonder And Developing Sense of Place (K-12) by Gillian Judson
Nature-Inspired Activities for Parents
- 30 Days of Reconnection: Nature-inspired daily activities
- Finding STEM in Nature: Low-Cost Outdoor Activities for Kids with Bright Horizons
- Learn at Home With PBS KIDS
- Learning about Rewilding
- Our Planet series by Netflix
- NatGeo’s At-Home Education Resources
- Nature Observation Exercises from the Biomimicry Toolbox
- STEM at Home
- Virtual Education Experience in a Forest (1-DRONIE 4K)
Additional Online Learning Activities, Books, and Resources
- AskNature.org Educational Resources
- BBC Bitesize Learning
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Montana Natural History Center Webinar on Fly Like a Goose and Build Like a Bee! Explore Nature Through Biomimicry!
- Nature’s Notebook
- Nature’s Techno Tricks — Biomimetics: Science mimicking nature by Dee Pigneguy
- Outside, Travel the World with These Livestream Cameras
- Seek by iNaturalist (app)
- Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation by Shari Tishman
- TEDEd: Earth School
- Tips from Maggie Riley on Engaging students with outdoor education during distance learning
- The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley
- The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
- Treehugger, How to Identify a Tree by its Bark
- Virtual Forest Therapy Walks
- Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature by M Amos Clifford
Have more resources you’d like to share with the community? Please email us at email@example.com, and we’ll update this list!
Learn More About the Panelists
Billy Almon is a biology-inspired futurist, public speaker, and ‘S.T.E.M. Storyteller’ and designer who highlights the connection between nature, technology, and design. He is a leading voice in how to use nature to explore S.T.E.M. fields. Over the last 4 years, Billy has been traveling around the world exploring how biological strategies are being used to inspire solutions to human challenges through the process called biomimicry. He is also the co-host of Little Giants, a tv series on Animal Planet.
Follow Billy’s work at:
Karen Ansberry is a teacher, writer, science PD provider, STEMinist, and mom to four young naturalists. She has a Bachelor of Science in biology from Xavier University and a Master of Arts in teaching from Miami University. As the co-author of the Picture-Perfect STEM and Picture-Perfect Science series for elementary school teachers, she helps teachers learn to integrate STEM and reading. Before she was a writer, she worked at the Cincinnati Zoo and later taught elementary school for 20-plus years. Nature Did It First is her first children’s book.
Follow Karen’s work at:
Sukhi Bal is a mother of 3 vibrant boys and a heart-centered leader. As a clinically trained counsellor and transformational coach, Sukhi is energized by helping others find their way back to themselves and honoring their innate wisdom. Through her own growth journey as a mother, she discovered how important it was to see each of her children for who they uniquely are. Recognizing that the current education system needed a huge paradigm shift, Sukhi and her husband co-founded an education framework called Xploration Centre to bring conscious, love-based, nature-inspired and innovative education to the world.
Follow Sukhi’s work at:
Daniel Kinzer is the founder of Pacific Blue Studios: a network of youth-powered exploration, design and innovation studios leveraging biomimicry, traditional ecological knowledge, and conservation technologies. He focuses on co-creating thriving, regenerative communities across Hawai’i and around our blue planet. Daniel is an educator, designer, adventurer, and ocean lover, and has spent over a decade living and learning across more than 70 countries and all 7 continents, including an expedition to Antarctica as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic
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America B. Patton is a guest writer for Asking Nature. He holds an Associates of Art degree from Coffeyville Community College, a Bachelor of Science in History Education, and a minor in music performance from McPherson College, and a Masters in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. America enjoys spending time with his amazing 8-year-old daughter Gracie.