CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 15 . . . . December 9, 2011
Biomimicry: Inventions Inspired by Nature.
Dora Lee. Illustrated by Margot Thompson.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2011.
40 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
Technological innovations-Juvenile literature.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Barbara McMillan.
Biomimicry is a way of thinking that encourages scientists, inventors and ordinary people to study nature and use ‘its’ solutions to solve ‘our’ problems. (p. 5)
Over the past few centuries, we’ve forgotten that we’re just one of millions of species that live on Earth. In shaping the world for our use, we’ve stopped living in balance with the other creatures that share the planet. We’ve used too much stuff and created too much waste… Imagine machines that use only sun for energy. Imagine factories that manufacture biodegradable materials and recycle all their waste. Imagine farms that are pest resistant and self-fertilizing. Some day, these dreams may become a reality, using nature as a model. The more we copy nature, the more likely we will fit in with the rest of the species on this planet. (p. 38)
Children often learn about biomimicry when studying the nature of technology and the design process in school science. As one example, a specific learning outcome in the Manitoba Grade 4 unit ‘Habitats and Communities’ invites students to “investigate how technological developments often mirror physical adaptations” of plants and animals. Examples given in A Foundation for Implementation document for Manitoba teachers include the webbed feet of aquatic animals and swimming fins, the thorns of cacti or roses and barbed wire, and the streamlined body of a fish and the canoe. Teachers interested in the history of science and technology might also include the story of Icarus and the flying machines of Leonardo da Vinci when studying flight and George de Mestrel’s invention of Velcro when studying the dispersal of plant seeds. In all cases, however, the focus is on the human-created product and how it mimics an adaptive trait observed in nature. This, according to the author of Biomimicry, Dora Lee, is only part of the story and perhaps the least important part.
Using nature as a model entails a way of thinking that goes far beyond the invention of products that copy an observed trait that has taken millennia to evolve to its current state. To use nature as a model means that one must first learn from nature – to understand the complexity of biological systems, including the inherent elements, models, and processes. It’s important to recognize, as Lee writes, that “[f]rom clusters of molecules to entire ecosystems, nature’s inventions are lean, green machines that get the job done” and are self-sustaining. As such, recycling is the norm; waste is non-existent and “what works stays”; “what doesn’t, goes”. In this context, it becomes obvious that sustainability, specifically humans living in ways that sustain all life on Earth, is the primary objective of the science of biomimicry. Lee is to be congratulated in bringing this message, in the gentle but definitive way that she does, to children.
Biomimicry is filled with information about existing biomimetic products and research studies scientists and engineers are conducting that use data from biological systems to solve human problems or to meet a human need. Examples include creating plastics from renewable materials (carbon dioxide and oil from orange peels) using “very little energy…thanks to a special chemical that kick-starts the manufacturing process” (p. 14), the development of artificial viruses that carry genetic material into cells to correct certain disorders (p. 18), and the creation of an energy-collecting device that looks like kelp and absorbs energy as the blades move in the water, thus producing electricity (p. 25). As the second excerpt above suggests, however, some problems and needs are more important than others. This includes our collective need as the human species “to find, and live within the limits of, our place in the web of life” (p. 37).
Margot Thompson illustrates Biomimicry. The pages of the book have the appearance of images painted on a very coarse canvas. I was initially distracted by this, but I came to prefer the softness with Thompson’s palette of greens, ochres, and umbers and her decision to understate the environments portrayed so as not to dominate the smaller images of organisms that illustrate Lee’s descriptions of inventions modelled on particular plant and animal traits. I do still wonder about the book’s cover and why the focus (title fonts and the four plants and animals becoming machines) is more the focus of the science outcome mentioned at the beginning of the review rather than the important relationship between biomimicry and living sustainably on Earth. Regardless, I very much appreciate designer Marie Bartholomew’s decision to use Thompson’s acrylic paintings in lieu of stock photos.
I highly recommend Biomimicry. It’s a timely and important book that all children, with their parents and/or teachers, should have an opportunity to read, think about, and discuss. Before introducing the book, consider discussing the difference between human needs and human wants and, with older children, how human needs can be achieved without destroying habitats and turning non-renewable resources into landfill wastes.
Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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