Imitating life: Students learn about biomimicry at Catawba College summit

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2012

By Juanita Teschner
Catawba College News Service
SALISBURY — It was geocaching with a sustainable purpose.
The high school students who came to Catawba College last week to participate in the National Environmental Summit, “Redesigning Our Future,” embarked on a GPS-based navigation course on the college’s 189-acre ecological preserve to learn about biomimicry.
The term — from “bios,” meaning “life,” and “mimesis” meaning “to imitate” — is a “revolutionary new science that studies nature’s best ideas,” says Dr. Jay Bolin, assistant professor of biology at Catawba and the leader of the biomimicry experience. Then it encourages the imitation of nature’s designs and processes to help solve human problems.
“Biomimicry holds a lot of unique solutions that can be models for how we design, construct and manufacture products while minimizing the environmental impacts of producing or using those products,” says Dr. John Wear, executive director of the college’s Center for the Environment and the seminal force behind the summit.
For example, cockleburs — plants that produce fruits which have a fierce ability to attach themselves to other objects — served as the original inspiration for Velcro.
“Many other examples exist, from modeling self-cooling buildings by studying termite mounds to examining the structure of lotus leaves to determine how we might develop paints that are self-cleaning,” Wear says.
He notes that all major ecosystems are created on certain principles: renewable energy and the cycling of all matter. “Ecosystems receive all the energy they need from the sun and do not have to deal with the pollutants,” he says. “The products of one group are the food or essential nutrients for the other.”
Nature treasure hunt
The students, who came from all over the country, headed out in small groups with GPS units preloaded with coordinates. They were guided to stations on the preserve where they found organisms or native plants or displays and a list of questions prompting them to think about biomimicry.
At Station 1, they considered the phytochemicals in the Black Willow tree. Willows contain salicylic acid, a component of aspirin. “We want them to think about why the plant has this chemical,” Bolin says, “about what plants and animals are doing creating defensive chemicals or essentially their own antibiotics.”
The students examined the fibers in a spider web, which can be stronger than steel. “When man produces similar fibers, it generally requires us to use high temperatures and high pressures,” says Wear. “And the production may result in undesirable waste products.”
The spider, on the other hand, can produce its fiber without increased temperature or pressure and without pollutants as byproducts. “It does this while using its insect prey as the raw materials,” Wear says.
Zahra Khan, a high school senior from China Grove, had never been hiking or experienced the ecological preserve before. “I thought it was amazing,” she says. Her group talked about how the fibers in a spider web could be used for something similar to a Kevlar vest. “Obviously it wouldn’t be the kind of spiders we have here,” she says, “but big, huge ones that build spider webs across lakes in Africa.
“It was really, really cool to see how we as human beings can use nature to build things,” Khan says. “Not only that but what we could build wouldn’t be a strong as what nature could do.”
The students also looked closely at the overlapping scales of a butterfly wing and its ability to repel water carrying dirt micro-particles. Their worksheet asked them, “What type of products could benefit from a self-cleaning (if exposed to rain) and hydrophobic (water repelling) surface?”
Participant Rafaello Adler-Abramo of Medford, Mass., helped his group with the GPS coordinates. While he knew about some of the examples of biomimicry, he said he “hadn’t looked at it at an overarching level.” He found the cockleburs and Black Willow “very interesting,” and was glad to get out in nature.
Bolin wanted the students to leave the Summit with the sure knowledge that nature has much to teach us. “While we know that humans and engineers were doing a good job creating synthetic chemicals and compounds and processes, there’s a lot we can learn from nature,” Bolin says. “Many times the process of evolution has created much more exquisite and sustainable solutions to our problems.”
“The answers are all around us,” says Khan. “We just have to look for them.”