Survival of the Fittest: Design in Nature and Biomimicry

By Kameko Branchaud, December 11, 2014

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Tools: Extending Our Reach

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Technology

Lesson Time

4 classes (times will vary)


Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach explores the different needs that tools from across cultures and time have met for people in different environments and situations. The look and purpose of tools depend on the individual using them, as well as the materials that are available to construct them. While certain tools have evolved over the years, their basic function to help people survive in their environment remains. With this understanding, students will have an opportunity to explore tools used for survival from across cultures and time, and consider how each tool on display helps the user survive the environment in which they live. In this activity, students will focus on the Flex Foot Cheetah, a prosthetic leg designed specifically for athletes. They will analyze the relationship between the object and the animal that inspired it, and they will consider the needs of the user as a factor in design. Ultimately, students will brainstorm and prototype their own tool to help them survive within their own environment or everyday life.

National Standards

Common Core CCLS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2-5.1-6 New York State Learning Standards Visual Arts Standards 2, 3, 4 Geography Standard 4 Language Arts Standards 8, 9 Thinking and Reasoning Standards 2, 3, 5, 6 Technology Standards 3, 6


Students will be able to: • Examine tools from the exhibition that are used for survival • Discuss and define what “survival” means and use this definition to discuss how tools are used for survival • Discover and understand biomimicry • Observe plants and animals • Design and build their own tool for survival as it relates to the environmental scenario they are given • Engage in the design process


Tools: Extending Our Reach Exhibition Catalogue: McHugh, Josh. “Blade Runner.” Wired Magazine. Ossur Prosthetics:  Pogash, Carol. “A Personal Call to a Prosthetic Invention.” The New York Times.  Octopus-Inspired Prosthetic Arm: Biomimicry resource: Engaging Students with Primary Sources: Nature and Science videos: Artichoke lamp: 


Drawing paper Pencils Clipboards Recycled cardboard boxes Colorful tape String Buttons Scissors Construction paper Pipe cleaners Coffee filters Straws


Biomimicry: the design of materials, products, and systems that are modeled on nature’s processes

Brainstorm:  the act of articulating ideas that enter one’s head suddenly, verbally or visually

Create:  to bring something into existence

Design: to form or conceive in the mind; to plan

Environment:  the land, air, water, organisms and all other external factors that surround us and affect the way we live

Protect/protection:  to keep safe from danger

Prototype:  an original or first model of something from which other forms are copied or developed

Survive/Survival: to live; to remain alive and be healthy especially in challenging conditions

Tool:  an instrument that is functional. Typically it aids in making a task easier.

User:  the intended person or thing that will use something

Climate: long-term weather pattern for a specific region

Natural resources: materials in nature that can be utilized by humans


Part 1


STEPS IN DESIGN PROCESS: Defining Problems and Getting Ideas

Since nature has a way of working that is often beautiful and sustainable, understanding nature can lead to finding ways to survive and to make life easier for people. By learning some of nature’s strategies, designers can find more innovative ways to solve problems. This is called biomimicry, the design of materials, products, and systems modeled on nature’s processes. The Flex-Foot Cheetah® is one example of how a designer created a product inspired by an animal and it is on view in the exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach.

The Flex-Foot Cheetah® Xtend is a J-shaped, custom-built, high performance prosthetic human foot designed primarily for sports activities. This product was designed by Van Phillips, who lost his leg below the knee and wanted to create his own prosthetic. The form of the prosthetic was inspired by the rear leg of a cheetah, the fastest land animal on earth. Woven carbon fiber is molded into a shape that acts as a springboard. Unlike traditional prosthetics, the inclined midsection directs the ground contact toward the front two inches of the “toe.” A c-shaped segment stores energy, compressing and springing back, propelling the runner forward. 

Show students images or videos of cheetahs running and have students become more familiar with the animal. Ask students to analyze its body by posing guiding questions:

·         What is the cheetah known for?

·         How does the cheetah survive?

·         What is so special about the way the cheetah runs?

·         Why do you think the cheetah needs to be able to run so fast?

Then show an image of the Flex-Foot Cheetah® along with the animal. Have students compare and contrast the Flex-Foot and the animal. Ask students:

·         How do you think the Flex-Foot Cheetah® is used?

·         Why would designers choose the cheetah as their inspiration for this product?

·         In what ways does this product help someone survive?

Now examine another animal that inspired a prosthetic: an octopus. Ask students to analyze what they see about the octopus.

·         What is the octopus known for?

·         How does the octopus survive?

·         Why do you think the octopus has tentacles?

Show an image of a prosthetic arm design that was inspired by the tentacle of an octopus.

·         How do you think the prosthetic arm is used?

·         What would this kind of arm allow a person to do?

·         Why do you think the designer chose the octopus as their inspiration for this product?

·         In what ways does this product help someone survive?

This design allows for the arm to be more flexible and adjustable, allowing the person to adjust how much of the arm to curl depending on the task. (Note: This is only a concept at the moment, not commercially available like the Flex-Foot.)

Compare the Flex-Foot Cheetah® with the prosthetic arm that was inspired by the tentacle of an octopus.

·         What might be some limitations of these prosthetics?

·         How does each design help people survive?

·         What would happen if they were switched—the octopus prosthetic was used as legs and the Flex-Foot was used as arms? What does this tell you about their design?

Extension/Literacy connection:

Use the suggested articles by McHugh and Pogash under “Resources” to have your students read about these objects and provide a written response.

Part 2


STEPS IN DESIGN PROCESS: Defining Problems And Getting Ideas

In order to use biomimicry in design, designers have to do their research first. They need to understand how plants, animals or other parts of nature work. If possible, take students on a walk around the school’s neighborhood to observe how plants and animals live in the community, or bring in examples of plants (vegetables, houseplants, flowers, etc.). Otherwise, begin by looking at videos of animals in motion. There are several available on the provided link to Smithsonian videos, under the category of Science and Nature. Have your students take notes and draw sketches on how the animals move, and what structures enable them to move in their particular ways. Ask them to imagine how these structures and mechanisms could translate into a tool to help someone move. This could be a prosthetic device or another type of transportation unit. 

Ask the following questions:

·         Describe the form, or body, of the creature. What unique features has it developed, and for what purpose?

·         What do you see the plant/animal doing?

·         How does this plant get nutrition? How does it get water? (i.e., explore how a leaf on a tree pulls water from the tree’s roots)

·         Does this animal have any predators? Does it have prey?

·         Analyze the movements of the animal as it travels.

·         How does this animal communicate with other animals?

·         How does this plant/animal change with the seasons?

·         How does it protect itself from predators?

·         How does it protect itself from extreme weather?

Have students sketch and take notes about their observations (these can be on the same paper). Sketching is a helpful way for students to remember what they observed, and to communicate something that they might not be able to put into words. If they are insecure about drawing, encourage them to do their best, and to focus on getting the concept on paper rather than making a pretty drawing. Ask them to write down any questions they have about the animal as they arise, and provide them with resources to research these answers, such as encyclopedias, the library, internet access, or their phones if it is allowed. Afterwards, have a class discussion about what they discovered and how their observations can inform a product of some kind.

Sample guiding questions include:

·         What is interesting about the way the plant or animal you’ve been researching does something?

·         How can you take what you observed about your animal, and use it to improve human life?

·         What sort of disabilities or functions could something based on your observations support or improve?

·         What do you want your person to be able to do?

·         Does your person have any limitations to think about? (i.e., vision impairment, elderly, parent with a baby, young child, etc.)

·         How will the plant or animal that you’ve been researching influence your prototype?

Part 3



Review the concept of biomimicry with your students. Today, add one more factor for them to respond to in their designs: the environment in which their design will be used.

Organize your students into teams. Decide if you want all the teams to focus on one environment or if you want to assign different environments to each group. The environment can be an urban area like New York City, a small town, a large suburban area, a rural area with a lot of farmland, etc.  Facilitate a discussion where students list distinctive qualities about an environment they need to think about when designing a nature-inspired tool. Do this as a class, or have students create brainstorming webs in small groups.

Here are some environment-defining variables to take into account:

·         Average temperature

·         The climate (stormy, dry, etc.)

·         Access to water

·         Natural resources such as trees, bushes, and rocks

·         Animals

·         Food sources

·         What will make it difficult to travel or transport items in this environment

Ask your students:

·         What are the specifics of your assigned environment?

·         What challenges to these conditions cause for travel?

·         How have animals that are native to this climate evolved to navigate its terrain? 

·         How does the animal that you are focusing on move? What structures support this movement?

·         What materials could respond to your user’s climate-specific needs?

Using their brainstorming web as a source of ideas, have your students spend the next 10-20 minutes drawing out ideas for a transportation vessel.

Part 4


Once each team has an idea in mind, have them begin prototyping with a variety of materials. These can be rudimentary, everyday classroom  materials that are mostly representational. Try to have a mix of rigid and flexible materials (ex. cardboard, paper, foil) and a couple types of fasteners (ex. tape, clips, staples). 

Remind students of the criteria of their vessel:

1.       It must mimic biological design.

2.       It must help a person move through an environment.

3.       It must be suited to the environment that they were assigned.

Give them about half an hour to construct their objects before sharing back to the class.



After teams complete their designs, go around the room and have each group briefly explain their environment and its challenges, the animal that inspired the design and how they incorporated their research. You and your students will evaluate the work of each group as they present. Consider whether or not they have met the criteria, and offer any suggestions about how the design could be improved. Time permitting, have students revise their designs based on the feedback.

Enrichment Extension Activities

·         Have two grab-bags, one with the names of animals written on pieces of paper, the other with an environment. Have wide variation in each category (Ex.: beetles to T-rex, and bathroom to desert). Each student selects one paper from each bag, and designs an object based on that animal, in response to a need created by that environment.

·         Create tools for fictional characters, or for characters in a fictional setting. For example, you could design a mug specifically to be held by Wolverine with his claws.

·         For young students, one variation on this project is to have each one design part of the tool, and, at the end, attach their tools together to form one large tool.

·         Design a transportation vessel based on how an animal moves.

  1. The level of questioning definitely lends itself to the design process. It gives the students an opportunity to think deeply about the various facets of their design. I like this new approach of designing tools inspired by the environmental conditions and the survival techniques and strategies of animals.

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