By Erin Leitch
It's 7:00 a.m. on Prevost Island in British Columbia, Canada. Everyone is up early with winter caps pulled tightly over ears and sipping cowboy coffee from metal mugs. Reluctantly slipping out of warm socks and shoes and into sandals still wet from the day before, we roll up our pants and head out to the rocky shoreline with bubbling anticipation. The tide is very far out and now is the best time of the day to observe life in the intertidal zone.
As the small crew carefully steps over tide pools and rocks slippery with sea kelp, it's not long before someone calls out "Over here!" and we all hurry to see what's been discovered. Our local expert and guide on sea life delicately picks up a beautiful orange sunstar. It's an absolutely stunning species of starfish with multiple legs, a soft body, and a brilliant adaptation for locomotion and conveyance. After a few moments of silent awe, the group bursts into childlike curiosity and questions. "Why is it soft while the other starfish are more rigid?" "How does it stick and release from the rocks so effectively?" "Look at how its millions of little legs moves that piece of seaweed so quickly!"
The crew is fervently taking notes and drawing impromptu sketches of all their observations and lessons from the sunstar. Their questions about the natural history of this unique organism now segue into ideas for applying the sunstar's lessons. "This could help us design better hydraulic pumping systems." "Imagine an adhesion system that worked as effectively at gluing and then ungluing as this..." It's an on-the-fly ideation session, and as the tide steadily rises over the next hour hiding once again the incredible micro-habitats and sea creatures, the discoveries and design ideas continue to flow among the crew as they are driven inland.
This crew of people is not composed only of biologists. They are also engineers, businesspeople, and designers all working together. They are on a learning journey to develop the skills to consciously emulate nature's genius. They are biomimics. As part of their education, they have transformed the way that they view and value the natural world. Their relationship with nature is to view the genius in the natural world as mentor, a model, and a measure of success for design in all aspects. This particular starfish sessions occurred with the trans-disciplinary students in the 2011 Biomimicry Professional certification with Biomimicry 3.8 at a recent in-person intensive training session.
These types of experiences are occurring all over the world in K-12 education, higher education, organizational trainings, nature clubs, and biomimicry networks. It's an innovative educational model that uses the outdoors as its classroom and nature's genius as the foremost instructor. The goal? To create a global shift in the way we view and value the natural world to drive innovation in sustainability.
"The biomimics are discovering what works in the natural world, and more important, what lasts," says Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute. "After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival."
Biomimicry is an emerging discipline based on core values of sustainability, innovation, and connection with the natural world, and as such the educational models to teach someone how to be a biomimic are emerging in tandem from a space of innovation in education.
One example of this innovative educational experience is Biomimicry 3.8's Biomimicry Specialist certification program, which opens its 2013 application period October 22, 2012. But that's just the major example. Around the world, students are learning how to learn from nature. Dayma offers biomimicry education to the urban Egyptian youth of Cairo that rarely connect with nature in their day-to-day lives. Biomimicry South Africa is a network of biomimics that regularly hosts biomimicry workshops to an enthusiastic regional following. And the University of Akron, in partnership with the Cleveland Institute of Art, is offering the world's first biomimicry PhD program this year.
These organizations and many other educational offerings are asking: How do you teach biomimicry holistically when it is inherently a trans-discipline study bringing biology to the world of design, business, engineering, and beyond? What happens when you cross traditional boundaries of education? What type of personal and professional transformation can you expect when diversity is not just accommodated, but is actually baked into the curriculum in regard to core competencies of the students, the types of educational spaces, and cultural perspectives?
The responses have included going outside, getting hands-on with nature, embracing a wide variety of cultural views of the natural world, and navigating the space between traditional areas of study. Moreover, a basic common denominator among these programs is creating the conditions conducive to discovery and critical connections.
Certainly, this is an educational space that will continue to adapt and evolve just as nature would.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.