BIOMIMICRY, Mushrooms Can Save the World

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

1 hour


As you read this, mushrooms are eating oil spills, providing insulation for buildings, and decomposing organic matter to create the soil we use and support the food we eat. Mushrooms are one of many ancient links we have to our ecological past. Consider this: without mushrooms there would be no terrestrial life on Earth. Designers are now harnessing the many potentials of mycology, the study of mushrooms, to address emerging challenges, ranging from sustainable material choices to energy efficiency.
In this lesson students will be introduced to the many applications and natural strategies of fungi.  These strategies will encourage solutions to several design challenges. Students will consider various scenarios that include soil remediation, water filtration and building performance. As designers, students will think critically about mushroom incorporation as a design strategy for improving a situation and addressing an environmental challenge. This lesson will compliment social studies and mathematics standards, providing a connection to geography and real-world mathematics applications.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core English Language Arts
Grades 6-8
Common Core Mathematics 6-8 Cluster Apply and extend previous understandings of arithmetic to algebraic expressions. Grade 6 6.EE.1. Write and evaluate numerical expressions involving whole-number exponents. 6.EE.2. Write, read, and evaluate expressions in which letters stand for numbers. Common Core Mathematics 6-8 Cluster Draw, construct, and describe geometrical figures and describe the relationships between them. Grade 7 7.G.1. Solve problems involving scale drawings of geometric figures, including computing actual lengths and areas from a scale drawing and reproducing a scale drawing at a different scale. Geography Level III (Grade 6-8) Standard 8. Understands the characteristics of ecosystems on Earth's surface Benchmark 4. Knows changes that have occurred over time in ecosystems in the local region (e.g., natural wetlands on a flood plain being replaced by farms, farmlands on a flood plain being replaced by housing developments) Benchmark 5. Knows the potential impact of human activities within a given ecosystem on the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen cycles (e.g., the role of air pollution in atmospheric warming or the growing of peas and other legumes, which supply their own nitrogen and do not deplete the soil) Standard 16. Understands the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution and importance of resources Benchmark 2. Knows strategies for wise management and use of renewable, flow, and nonrenewable resources (e.g., wise management of agricultural soils, fossil fuels, and alternative energy sources; community programs for recycling or reusing materials) Benchmark 4. Understands the consequences of the use of resources in the contemporary world (e.g., the relationship between a country's standard of living and its accessibility to resources, the competition for resources demonstrated by events such as the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991)   Science Level III (Grade 6-8) Standard 6. Understands relationships among organisms and their physical environment Benchmark 1. Knows that all individuals of a species that exist together at a given place and time make up a population, and all populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem Benchmark 2. Knows factors that affect the number and types of organisms an ecosystem can support (e.g., available resources; abiotic factors such as quantity of light and water, range of temperatures, and soil composition; disease; competition from other organisms within the ecosystem; predation)

Common Core State Standards

English Language Arts Standards Writing 

Grade 6-8

Text Types and Purposes:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1.A Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1.B Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1.C Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1.D Establish and maintain a formal style.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1.E Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.A Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories as appropriate to achieving purpose; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.B Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
Production and Distribution of Writing:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5 With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas clearly and efficiently.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening

Grade 6-8

Comprehension and Collaboration:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1.A Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 8 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

English Language Arts Standards: Reading Informational Text

Grade 6-8    

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.2 Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

Craft and Structure:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.8 Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. 

English Language Arts Standards: Science & Technical Subjects 

Grade 6-8    

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

Craft and Structure:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.6 Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.10 By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend science/technical texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


  • Students will gain a better understanding of the properties of mushrooms.
  • Students will explore the multiple design applications provided by mushrooms. Mushrooms can be used as insulation material, as a remediation source, a food source or to provide nutrients for an ecosystem.
  • Students will use their knowledge of mushroom properties to solve an environmental design challenge.


Greensulate is an organic, fire-retardant board made from mycelium, the “roots” of a mushroom, and other natural byproducts such as buckwheat and rice hulls and cotton burrs. It is an affordable and environmentally-friendly replacement for expanded polystyrene, used in cavity walls and structural insulating panels. Produced without heat and light, the material actually grows in the dark, taking between five and fourteen days for a panel of any size. Its superior strength and insulating properties can reduce the amount of energy used in the home and increase efficiency. The same technology behind Greensulate can also be used to make other products, such as packaging and furniture.


Pencils, paper, poster paper, recyclable materials for model-making, Paul Stamets' Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World (optional)


• Ecoliteracy is the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible, and using this understanding to create sustainable human communities. • A fungus is a member of a large group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts and molds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms.
• Mycelium (plural mycelia) is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.
• Brownfields are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities available for re-use. The land may be contaminated by low concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution, and has the potential to be reused once it is cleaned up.
• Superfund is the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), a United States federal law designed to clean up hazardous waste sites.
• Environmental Remediation is the removal of pollution or contaminants from environmental media such as soil, groundwater, sediment, or surface water for the general protection of human health and the environment.


1. An Introduction to Fungus (10 minutes – Review)
Mushrooms are part of a larger group of plants known as fungi. A fungus is different from an ordinary green plant because it can’t make its own food. Mushrooms come in many colors, shapes, and sizes. As a matter of fact, there are 38,000 different varieties. They survive by eating decaying matter. Mushrooms like to live in dark, damp places. They feed off of the decaying matter around them using mycelium. As the mushroom grows, it develops spores in the gills. The gills are located on the underside of the cap. New mushrooms grow from these spores. The spores of mushrooms are incredibly tiny and cannot be viewed without the assistance of a microscope. A collection of millions of these spores would be a minute pile of fine powder.
These mushroom spores are pictureed through the use of a scanning electron microscope (University of New Hampshire).
When the spores are ripe, they shoot out of the mushroom. They drift silently away with the currents of wind, mixing with other mushrooms.  If the spores are lucky, they will land in an environment conducive to their growth and development. If they land in a dark, damp place with a food source, they will grow into new mushrooms. First, they develop a threadlike structure called a hyphae. Lots of hyphae grow together and form the mycelium. The hyphae and the mycelium grow under the surface of the ground where they can't be seen. Next, the fruiting body starts to grow above the surface. When it first appears, it looks like a little button. This button-like part of the fruiting body is called the cap. The cap is protected by a thin covering called a veil. As the mushroom grows bigger, the veil splits and falls down around the stalk (stem) of the mushroom and forms the annulus.
2. Mycellic Provisions (10 minutes – Investigate)
After introducing students to the interesting and important role of mushrooms, consider some issues related to design and the environment. Explain to students that in the upcoming lesson they will be challenged to use mushrooms as a design tool to solve a real-world problem. However, before we get to this challenge, we should consider some problems and their solutions for inspiration.
Problems to Consider:
• Soil and Water Quality – The United States is home to thousands of superfund and brownfield sites. These are designated areas that have been deemed too dangerous for habitation because the soil and surrounding area has been contaminated by toxic substances such as petroleum byproducts and other chemical runoff. (Use to find out if a toxic site is locate near you.)
• Food – Industrial farming has caused an unknown amount of damage to soil quality.  If current trends persist, the development of new and innovative food production methods will be needed, especially methods that work on a more local scale.
• Deforestation – Large portions of the forested areas around the country are being devastated in order to collect timber.
This forest in Guatemala has been destroyed to harvest wood and clear the way for new development. (
• Building Performance – Nearly 40-50% of our homes and buildings will need to be weatherized, or made more efficient, to save heat and electricity over time.
Dr. Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World, has developed some of the following strategies that use the properties of mushrooms to address many environmental design problems:
• Mycoremediation – Oyster mushrooms have been proven to clean up certain types of pollution like petroleum wastes and diesel. In the 1990s, Stamets and researchers from Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, grew oyster-mushroom mycelia on wood chips, then sprinkled the chips onto a pile of soil drenched in diesel and other petroleum waste. The pile was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms within a couple of days, “eating” the waste and metabolizing the substance into what Stamets believes is a harmless substrate.
• Mycofiltration - Mycofiltration is the process of using mushroom mycelium mats as biological filters. One industrial application of mycofiltration has been to prevent erosion due to water runoff. Its primary application has been on abandoned logging roads.
• Mycoforestation - Mycoforestry is the use of fungi to sustain forest communities.
• Insulation – The design firm Ecovative Design has developed a process that uses the mushroom roots, mycelium, as glue for an eco-friendly insulation material. Combined with agricultural byproducts (waste products from the farm like rice husks), the mushroom glue is poured into a mold. Just like yeast and bread, over a couple of days, they digest the agricultural byproducts and form them into strong, beautiful bio-composites. This material, Greensulate, can be used to insulate buildings.
Some other real-world applications:
• The U.S. Department of Defense’s Project BioShield is working with Dr. Paul Stamets, mycologist, to use mushroom strains like Agarikon to selectively attack cowpox and vaccinia viruses.
• Stamets is also developing a certain fungi that can infect and kill ants and termites.
• When fungal sugars are mixed with yeast and other active ingredients, they turn into “myconol”—a fuel no different from the ethanol now being blended with gasoline to power cars.
Math Application:
Use this math application to help students understand how fungus grows:
2^number of generations (n) x initial number of fungus spores = total # of fungus spore present after n generations
Example: Bacillus cereus divides every 30 minutes. You inoculate a culture with exactly 100 fungus spores. After 3 hours, how many spores are present?
In 3 hours, B. cereus will divide 6 times. Therefore, n = 6.
2^6 = 64 or 2x2x2x2x2x2
64 x 100 = 6,400 cells
Some other math facts/ideas:
• A mature mushroom can produce 2 billion spores in 4 days.
• It takes 96 hours to produce 2 billion spores, 500 million in 24 hours.
• Measuring the diameter/radius of a mushroom cap can be a great activity for geometry.
3. Mushroom Design Challenge (15 minutes – Generate)
Now present students with a design challenge. How can mushrooms be used to help with issues in your community? Use this as an opportunity to include geography concepts you are exploring in Social Studies.
Divide students into Myco-Design teams. Present each team with one of the following scenarios or challenges. Encourage them to use their new knowledge about mushrooms to design a solution that will be presented to you and the rest of the class:
• Brownfield/Superfund Site – There was an oil spill in a nearby river valley. The oil is slowly spreading around the site and into the water supply. Develop a design strategy for reducing the impact of this oil spill on the environment. How can you use mushrooms to help with this challenge? Create a model and sketch out a diagram of a cleanup site and machine you would build to help.
• Deforestation – A new logging company has just left a recently logged site. The landscape has been ravaged! All that is left are stumps, mud and some grass. How can you design a strategy for helping the forest come back to life? How could mushrooms help in this process? Design a re-forestation strategy for the area and develop a plan for implementation.
• Building Performance/Insulation – You’ve just been hired by the mayor to make all of the public buildings in your town more energy efficient. But there is one catch – you need to use earth friendly materials to help insulate or fix these buildings so they save more heat and electricity. You are also located in a town that has a lot of agricultural waste. How can mushrooms be used to help make the town hall and other public buildings more energy efficient? What would your design strategy look like? Sketch out some ideas, describe the kinds of materials you would develop, use and the implementation strategy needed. See the Greensulate case study in the 2010 National Design Triennial’s catalog.
• Food – Design a farm for mushrooms that could feed 500 community members. There are many ways to grow mushrooms using controlled environments or inoculated logs or woodchips. The mushroom farm would consist of a number of environmentally controlled growing rooms/areas.  A pack-house and cold store are also required along with offices and staff facilities. Each room should produce enough mushrooms for 500 people each month. However, after each harvest, it will take 3-4 weeks until the next harvest. To keep a steady supply of mushrooms, you will need several rooms growing mushrooms on a rotating basis.
Use examples from design firm Dirt Studio to stimulate ideas:
4. Mushroom Design Lab (25 minutes - Edit and Develop)
Encourage students to brainstorm with their teams. Each team must create a series of sketches, write down a proposed plan and then create either a poster diagram of their project or a 3D model using recyclable materials.
Encourage labeling and a clear explanation of how mushrooms are used as an eco-design strategy to address their particular challenge.
Share each team’s design. If time permits, setup a mock community board or council in the classroom. Debate some of the proposals and as a class vote on the best project. (Share and Evaluate)


Reflection Questions
  • How could your mushroom project help people in your community in both the short and long term future?
  • Did you find the diversity of possible uses for mushrooms surprising?  If so, why?
  • Do you think it is more environmentally conscious to harvest mushrooms or trees?

Enrichment Extension Activities

 Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • For younger students, focus on one design challenge scenario and explore it more closely with your class: the Brownfield/Superfund Site. As a class, study two projects by DIRT Studios (Vintondale Reclamation Park and Stearns Quarry Park) to give your students an idea of what a design solution might be as well as what a designer's sketch and model might look like.
  • A modified design challenge for elementary school might read: A local landfill is now full and is shutting down. Toxic leachate from the landfill is threatening your town's water supply. Develop a design strategy for reducing the impact of this landfill on the environment. How can you use mushrooms to help with this challenge? Create a model and sketch out a diagram of the cleanup site and a community park to replace the landfill.
 Differentiation for High School:
  • Older students can do more in-depth research on mushrooms, their unique properties, their uses in sustainable design and their potential uses in environmentalism. This research should be shared with the class and can inform their design solutions.
  • You might study mushrooms in your class by bringing in samples, growing mushrooms or creating a controlled experiment.
  1. I was drawn to this lesson by its catchy title–I too believe mushrooms can save the world! For the ‘generate’ phase you have 4 very apt design challenges outlined, and it leaves me as a student wanting to know who the ‘user’ of my design really would be…

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