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Not just playing around: students create toys with inspiration from nature

It’s pretty cool when one of your first assignments in college is to build a toy, but this task is anything but child’s play.

Students in a First-Year Odyssey (FYO) seminar at the University of Georgia created children’s toys or games based on the concept of bio-inspired design. Given only eight weeks to complete the assignment, the student teams came up with prototypes for a ring-toss game based on a cactus’ defense mechanisms, a catapult that launches toy birds into a nest, and a soft dart game with a spider web theme.

The Bio-Inspired Design Innovation seminar was led by Ramana Pidaparti, a professor and the associate dean for academic programs in the College of Engineering.

“In bio-inspired design, we look for solutions to problems by mimicking the way nature has adapted to challenges,” said Pidaparti. “Over the course of 3 billion years, the biological world has developed some clever solutions for incredibly complex problems.”

You don’t have to look far to find examples of bio-inspired design. Velcro is found on everything from shoes to astronauts’ space suits. The fastening material was inspired by the way plant burrs stick to dog hair.

“The concept of biomimicry is an interesting way to think about engineering solutions, especially challenges related to sustainability” said Megan Hively, a first-year student who plans to study environmental engineering. “We can mimic nature’s solutions to make our systems more sustainable.”

Like all First-Year Odyssey courses at UGA, Pidaparti’s seminar was open to all freshmen not just those planning to pursue an engineering degree.

“I’ve always been a math and science person but I haven’t always been an out-of-the-box thinker,” said Regan McGovern, a freshman who plans to major in biology and psychology. “This seminar challenged me to think more broadly and gave me a new appreciation for biomimicry.”

Another seminar participant, Anish Naik, plans to major in finance in UGA’s Terry College of Business. He was drawn to the bio-inspired design seminar because he believes working through the design process provides insights into the various stages of a product launch.

“Also, it’s interesting to think about how biology and bio-inspired design may be affecting various items on the market,” Naik said.

The Bio-Inspired Design Innovation seminar led by Pidaparti is part of a broader effort to introduce biomimicry into the College of Engineering’s curriculum. For example, the college introduced a sophomore design course this year that requires students to apply the concepts of bio-inspired design to engineering challenges.

In addition, Pidaparti is working with Jacquelyn Nagel, an assistant professor of engineering at James Madison University, to develop instructional resources centered on the concept of biologically-inspired design. Their two-year collaboration is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Pidaparti and Nagel believe bio-inspired design courses, combining engineering with biology and other natural sciences, have the potential to attract a more diverse group of students who may not consider engineering otherwise.

Students say the Bio-Inspired Design Innovation seminar taught them more than the science behind biomimicry. Critical-thinking skills, soliciting and assessing feedback, and teamwork were also important components of their projects.

Mary Clark, a freshman from Harris County who plans to major in biological engineering, said the seminar was a perfect way to begin her studies at UGA.

“What better way to introduce myself to what I’ll be doing the rest of my life?” 

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