Teaching overview

Learning points

  • Lotus leaves are covered in tiny hairs, which stop water and dirt sticking to them.
  • Scientists took inspiration from lotus leaves and created a special coating that stops water and dirt sticking to clothes.
  • Copying ideas from nature to solve human problems is called biomimicry.

Curriculum keywords

  • Plants
  • Materials
  • STEM

Spark a discussion

  • What are natural and synthetic materials?
  • Can you name some examples of natural materials and synthetic materials?
  • Where do synthetic materials come from?
  • What methods can scientists use to see how the leaves of plants work?
  • What effect do the tiny bumps and hairs on the lotus plant have on water and dirt?
  • Why do you think it is important that the lotus plant is able to stop water sticking to its leaves?
  • What do you think are some of the advantages of having fewer clothes to wash?
  • Can you think of anything else that this spray could be useful for?
  • Can you think of any other examples in nature that you think would be useful for scientists to try and copy?

Multimedia toolbox

Natural and synthetic materials visual

Show the visual before the film and ask students to sort the objects into two groups: natural materials and synthetic materials.

Biomimicry
When engineers copy ideas from nature to design solutions to human problems.

Biomimicry

Show the visual after the film to reinforce scientific terminology.

Biomimicry examples visual

Show the visual after the film. Explain that each image shows something in nature that has inspired an invention. Ask student pairs to think about and discuss what this could be for each image, and then invite them to research what these inventions are.

Inspiring nature visual

Display the visual after the film and ask students to identify the special features of each plant. Ask them to discuss with a partner how they think this feature could be useful in a human invention.

Activities

Nature-inspired inventions

DESIGN a solution to a human problem that is inspired by nature.

Open detailed instructions

Other activity ideas

  • RESEARCH latest inventions inspired by biomimicry and ask students to write a report on their favourite.
  • CREATE an advert for the lotus-inspired non-stick coating spray.
  • EXPLAIN how humans could go about inventing a new, streamlined, warm wetsuit to go deep-sea diving in. Where would they get their inspiration? Why?
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Nature-inspired inventions

Duration: 45 minutes

Resources:

Key Learning:

This activity helps students to recognise how to solve human problems by taking inspiration from features found in nature. They walk around several areas in the school to pick out problems, and try to think of solutions to these problems using features found in plants or animals.


Activity preparation:  Identify 2 or 3 areas that you can take the students around in the school. These can be anywhere: the classroom, the hallway, the main entrance to the school, or the playground.

  1. Ask the students why it might be a good idea to look at things found in nature for solutions to human problems. Discuss as a class for a few minutes, guiding the students towards the understanding that because the feature solved a problem for the plant or animal, it could help solve a problem for humans too.
  2. Explain to the students that they are now going to think about problems at school that they could solve using inspiration from features found in nature.
  3. Provide an example or two to get the students started. You could say that a school needs a bell that is loud enough to hear from anywhere in the playground, so you’re going to think about loud sounds in nature – like an elephant’s trumpet. A classroom also needs somewhere to put all its pens and pencils, so you’re going to think about a plant that has a shape that would hold pencil-shaped objects – like a tulip.
  4. Explain to students that as they look around the school for problems, they should list or draw the ones that they could solve by using inspiration from living things. Point out that they can also look for problems that have already been solved and think about a different way to solve them.
  5. Take the students around the areas you identified for the activity, pausing in various spaces for them to observe and makes notes. Ask the following questions as you move around:
    • What kind of things do we need in this area?
    • What would help you stay safe?
  6. Point out some objects (e.g. a loudspeaker or fan) and ask if any of them solve problems. Ask:
    • What problem do these objects solve?
    • Could you solve this problem in a different way using a feature found in nature?
  7. Draw the students’ attention to any unsolved problems that you might come across. Does the hallway floor ever become slippery when it has been raining outside? Ask students to think about features that animals have that help them to grip ice as they walk over it, such as claws or rough foot pads.
  8. Return to the classroom and ask students to tell you the problems that they have written down, along with their nature-inspired solutions. Brainstorm as a class for any other nature-inspired solutions to the problems.
  9. Ask students to choose their favourite nature-inspired solution from the board, and to create designs for it. They should annotate their designs explaining what feature has been taken from which plant or animal. 

Background information

  • Natural materials include materials from plants, like cotton or bamboo, and materials that come from animals, such as wool and leather. They can also come from the Earth itself – materials like diamonds and iron are mined from the ground. Synthetic materials are materials that would not exist without humans. Steel – an alloy made of the two natural materials carbon and iron – is a synthetic material because it is made by humans.
  • Biomimicry is the creation of synthetic materials that have similar properties to living things found in nature. This process is often used to provide solutions to problems. The term “biomimicry” is relatively recent (it only came into use several decades ago), but the concept of copying ideas from nature has been around for much longer. Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in the 15th century, studied bird and bat anatomy in detail to inspire him while he created designs for a flying machine.
  • Biomimicry has been used to produce a number of solutions to problems. Examples include: the development of a quieter, faster train modelled on the kingfisher’s long, streamlined beak; a shopping centre in Zimbabwe kept naturally cool thanks to its design based on termite hills; the invention of the hook and loop fastener, inspired by its inventor seeing burdock seeds attach to his dog’s fur; and adhesives that mimic geckos’ feet, which are famous for allowing geckos to scurry up smooth walls and across ceilings.
  • Lotus leaves are able to repel water because their surfaces are very textured: when viewed under a microscope, you can see that they are covered in thousands of tiny bumps, with each of these bumps covered in minuscule hairs. If the leaves were smooth, water droplets would be able to stick to their surfaces, but the microscopic bumps and hairs all over the lotus leaves stop this from happening. The water simply collects into beads and rolls off, pulling any dirt on the leaf along with it. This has the effect of keeping the lotus leaf clean and dry. Scientists have used the structure of the lotus leaf to create paints, tiles and glass that help reduce the amount of chemicals used in cleaning, which is helpful to the environment.

Glossary

Biomimicry
When engineers copy ideas from nature to design solutions to human problems.
Natural material
Any material that is made from living things, such as plants or animals, or comes from the ground, such as rocks, minerals and metals.
Synthetic material
Any substance made by humans by mixing or reacting natural materials together to form a new material.

Explore our resources

Complete your lesson with teaching resources on the properties of materials from Tigtag.

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