BIOMIMICRY, Working Together: Cooperative Design

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

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

1.5 hours


Everyday, we are helped by others and help others in return. We open doors for one another, have conversations, share dinner and make plans in groups. Thinking about how things work together is essential for innovative design. For examples of this truth we don’t have to look much farther than our backyards. Ecosystems and the natural world act in an extraordinarily cooperative system--one that we are part of! For instance, it only takes 6-7 days for the air breathed in your classroom to circulate around the world. We are also connected by vast climate patterns, oceanic currents and geological activities that work in concert with life sustaining forces, both near and far.
This image illustrates the vast network of oceanic currents that flow around the world (
These cooperative systems, which govern the natural world, provide a unique model of efficiency and innovation that can be incorporated into the products and solutions that designers dream up everyday. In this lesson, students will consider how design can help disparate elements of the world work together. Students will use design-thinking strategies to come up with cooperative designs that combine multiple elements, audiences or variables. Students will be presented with a number of design challenges and will use concepts and examples of biomimicry and cooperative design to develop a design solution. This exercise will compliment social studies lessons related to geography or physical systems.

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
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)

Common Core State Standards

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.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.3 Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

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.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-7.9 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.
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.

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.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.3 Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

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 Writing 

Grade 6-8

Text Types and Purposes:

  • 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.


• Students will learn about parasitic and symbiotic relationships and organisms found in major ecosystems around the world.
• Students will be challenged to design their own interpretation of a cooperative design.
• Students will think critically about regional ecosystemic systems.
• Students will understand applications in mapping, graphing and chart making.



Paper, pencils, drawing materials, collage materials (old magazines, glue, scissors, etc.)


• Epiphyte - an organism that grows upon or attaches to a living plant.
• Parasite - an animal or plant that lives in or on a host (another animal or plant); it obtains nourishment from the host without benefiting or killing the host.
• Symbiotic - a relationship in which two or more dissimilar organisms live together in close association.
• Ecological Mutualism – a condition where both elements of the same system benefit from interaction.


1. Cooperation vs. Competition (10 minutes – Review)
Talk to students about the word “cooperation.” What does it mean? What about the word competition?
As an opening game, list 10 words on the board – 5 are synonyms of competition and 5 are synonyms of cooperation. Ask students to guess which words match the word cooperation and which match the word competition.  This activity can help build vocabulary skills.
Example Words:
• Cooperation: alliance, assistance, collaboration, harmony, participation, partnership, teamwork, union, unity
• Competition: aggressive, at odds, combative, opposing, rival, battling, contesting
Now ask students to consider how cooperation is connected to nature or “ecology.” Define ecology for students. Ecology is the study of our home, the planet Earth (eco means home, derived from Latinate and Greek roots). It is the study of living and nonliving things and how they interact with each other over time. Our home, Earth is filled with many things that frequently interact and cooperate with each other.
So what kinds of things are cooperative in nature? Or is nature really all about competition - cheetahs chasing gazelles or falcons swooping down to catch mice?  Actually, most of the natural world exists in a cooperative balance.  The relationship between predator and prey, which many think of as competitive, is part of a larger system of cooperation based on many variables like population dynamics, resource availability, climate and habitat type. In most cases, the predator only takes as much as it needs.  Prey only reproduce as much as their food supply and other natural resources will allow. A constant balance is forged between both organisms, even though it may seem as though “survival of the fittest” is the overriding principle of the animal kingdom.
Show your student an image of a Cheetah. Discuss their aggression exhibited as predators as being part of a larger pattern of balance and cooperation in the animal kingdom.
Let’s consider an example – the human body. Each of our organs – liver, heart, kidney, etc. – have different roles and needs.  However, they ultimately work together as one system, which we refer to as the body. If our organs were in competition with each other, our bodies would not survive for very long. Instead, the many systems that make up our bodies work in cooperation with each other: the nervous, circulatory and respiratory systems work together to ensure survival and proper function.
In ecology, we have a special word for this kind of cooperation – ecological mutualism – a condition where both elements of the same system benefit from interaction. End your discussion by asking students to think about examples of cooperation they have observed in nature or their community.
2. Cooperative Design (10 minutes – Investigate)
After discussing cooperation vs. competition, introduce the aspect of design. How can design be cooperative? Define and discuss the term “cooperative/participatory design” for students. What does it mean and what are some examples?
To facilitate this discussion, create a venn diagram on the board in which different ecological balance issues overlap. You might write down the word "nature" and the name of your town or city. What kinds of things overlap – parks and street trees, nearby mountains or rivers, air quality and health, food and other resources?  Make it clear that the overlap areas – those representing intersecting ideas – are the focus of today's discussion on the potential for cooperation and interaction.
Examples of cooperative design are all around us. Let’s focus on the example of an organic or urban farm like the Growing Power farms in the Midwest. ( Each element of the farm cooperates with the soil and the local ecology of the farm’s location. Let’s look at some examples of how cooperative design is used throughout the farm:
• Aquaponics: cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a re-circulating system
• Bees: Bee apiaries (or hives) pollinate the farm crops while producing honey that can be sold at market
• Compost: The farm takes food and organic wastes and converts this waste into a fertilizer for the farm
• Livestock: The farm grows worms, fish and chickens which all serve another purpose on the farm. The worms are used in vermiculture operations and help break down the food wastes collected into compost. The fish provide fertilizer and nutrients for the aquaponics systems.  Chickens provide yet another kind of fertilizer for crops as well as eggs, which are sold at market.
How are these examples forms of cooperation? Why is it important or beneficial for this farm to encourage this kind of cooperative system in how it grows food and raises animals?
If you are still having trouble connecting students to the concept of cooperative design, explain that examples of cooperative design may be hard to see in our daily lives, but are there nonetheless. To provide more direct and relevant connections, gather some examples of cooperative design or behavior in you local region.
To further spark discussion about local issues, ask students to describe their local landscape or neighborhood. Conduct field studies from the windows of your classroom or go for a neighborhood walk, a trip to the park or a local nature center. Begin to frame the main question we will be addressing through this exercise: how can cooperative design be used to help our local community? What are the benefits and tradeoffs of cooperative design?
Ask students to conduct research that will help them understand the power of cooperation in the design process.

Element 1

Element 2

How do they cooperate?

What benefits and tradeoffs does this offer the community?

Food Waste


The worms eat the food waste and produce compost.

The compost is used to grow food.

3. Cooperation in Context (5 - 10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
Let’s consider some more examples of cooperative design. In a recent MoMA exhibition called Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, designers were asked to think of solutions to emerging climate change issues like rising water levels. Each designer used some kind of natural process to find an innovative way of tackling this issue. Using the rubric and attached image sheet, ask students to identify the cooperative elements of each design proposal. In other words, what are two distinct things or processes you can identify from each proposal. For instance, in the first example by ARO and dlandstudio, designers propose the planting of a grassland around Manhattan to protect the island from rising waters. In this instance, the designers used native aquatic grasses to (1) absorb water and (2) provide a natural barrier for the island.


Element 1

Element 2

New Urban Ground

ARO and dlandstudio

In this example, architects propose a large grassland to be planted around the perimeter of Manhattan to help stave off rising waters.

Water Proving Ground

LTL Architects

LTL’s plan proposes a series of piers, canals, and coves that house a new assortment of urban activities, from fish farming to watery recreation.



This proposal uses the concept of oyster farms to help filter water and provide opportunities for new land uses around places like the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

Working Waterline

Matthew Baird Architects

This proposal re-uses old bottles to create a giant reef or barrier that would protect waterfront areas and also generate power as the tides move the barrier up and down.

New Aqueous City


This idea suggests digging into areas around the East River and Atlantic Ocean and floating columns that would support suspended structures above the water.

(Note: you can visit for ideas on how to talk about climate change in your classroom.)
Provide even more examples from the 2010 National Design Triennial:
• MetaboliCity - MetaboliCity is an urban ecosystem that supports modular farming systems. A lightweight textile structure serves as the scaffold on which plants are grown. Organic, dye-sensitized solar cells are clad to the woven structures to harvest the sun’s energy, powering a pump system that monitors and feeds the plants as well as micro LEDs for ambient light at night.
• Soil Lamp - The Soil Lamp makes use of the metabolism of biological life in dirt to produce enough energy to power a small LED light. The soil, enclosed in cells containing zinc and copper, acts as an electrolyte—an electrically conductive medium—and requires only a simple splash of water to keep it from drying out.
• H2Otel - Water is the primary energy source in the H2Otel. Located next to the Amstel River in Amsterdam, the hotel utilizes the river’s water for heating, cooling, cooking, and generating electricity. Because of this comprehensive use of water, the H2Otel is expected to be named the first carbon-neutral hotel in the Netherlands.
• Cabbage Chair - The Cabbage Chair was created for an exhibition organized in Japan by fashion designer Issey Miyake. Resins added to the paper during the original production process give it strength and memory, while the pleats make the paper springy and elastic. The poetic and practical chair is a direct, minimal transformation of an industrial waste product. Its pod-like skin unfurls to reveal a luxuriant and expansive interior. It has no internal armature, and requires no finishing, assembly, or hardware.
As a further extension, look at examples from the Portland, OR based organization City Repair or the Design Trust for Public Space.  Both organizations improve local neighborhoods through a participatory and cooperative design process that uses community input to solve problems.
4. Cooperative Design Lab: Part One (20 minutes – Generate)
Now its time to encourage students to think of cooperative designs for the future! Think big, think wacky! Challenge each student to pick two areas like water and housing, transportation and food, clouds and fish, and find a way to make a cooperative design that includes both elements equally. Start with a venn diagram then make sketches of a possible design for the real world.
First, ask students to think of a simple problem to address or question to answer.
How can buildings make their own energy?
There is too much traffic in my neighborhood.  Where can I ride my skateboard?
 Next, help students define two focus areas to work with:
• Focus Area One: (i.e. water)
• Focus Area Two: (i.e. food)
5. Cooperative Design Lab: Part Two (20 minutes - Edit and Develop)
Now lets make your designs a reality! Each student should first generate a sketch of their design and then create a poster that includes the following elements:
1. Problem or question
2. Two focus areas
3. Cooperative design idea/description
4. Sketch or drawing of final design
Encourage each student to explain clearly how a cooperative approach to design helped him or her think through a problem or challenge.
If time allows, have students create 3D models from recycled materials. Add labels and descriptions to these models.
Students can share their cooperative designs with the class. Can others guess the two or more overlapping areas chosen for each design? Think about where these designs could be placed and how they may help the environment and our health. (Share and Evaluate)
Each student should present their designs to the class and walk her or his peers through the issues the design explores. (Finalize)


Reflection Questions
  • What cooperative systems in nature inspire you?
  • After school today, how will you interact with nature?  For example, will you play sports outside, pick flowers or climb a tree?
  • What would a chair design based on your favorite fruit or vegetable look like?  How could you make it comfortable?
  • Do you think pets and humans help one another?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • To help younger students with the design challenge, the teacher can make cards with different focus areas (water, soil, trees, air, buildings, etc.) prior to the activity. Design teams can choose two cards, which will be the focus areas of their cooperative design.
  • The teacher can then assist each design team in writing the question that their design will address. For example, if the team chose trees and buildings, the question they might address is "How might we design a new way for buildings and trees to be integrated to make a healthier neighborhood?"
Differentiation for High School:
  • Students should research contemporary issues that affect our health and environment as the jumping off point for their designs, i.e. pollution, greenhouse gases, GMOs, toxins in our cosmetics, etc. Their research can lead them to choose their two focus areas and a question to be addressed by cooperative design. For example, "How might we design a farm that reduces the use of GMOs while incorporating compost and wind?"
  • Students should make their research and design solutions available for peers and community members through a class blog or videos posted online.

Related Files

  1. Great science lesson with manners embedded! GMO’s are at the forefront of conversation these days because of all of the health effects. This is hands on and still reinforces textbook concepts.

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