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Missoula's Biomimicry Institute finds engineering inspiration in the most likely places

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Stier has been working on fine-tuning that process with Big Sky High School teacher Dave Jones. A few weeks ago they spent several hours on it, playing around with the ingredients, adding calcium chloride to raise PH levels. Dona Boggs, a biology professor at UM, has been volunteering a large chunk of her time to tailor the lab so that undergrad chemistry students can use it.

In April, on Earth Day, Stier flew to The Lovett School in Atlanta, Ga. to talk to 600 kids in an auditorium about biomimicry. He was nervous: He envisioned it as one big room full of 600 versions of his high school self. He wondered if he'd get tomatoes thrown at him. But Stier told the students about how nature-inspired design and chemistry work, and what its conservation implications are, and was surprised that the room was fairly quiet—and that afterward there were so many questions that he could barely get out of the lobby, he says. That also made a lot of sense to him. "In high school, they're hearing about all these intense environmental issues that we have. And it's kind of scary. Biomimicry is very exciting and hopeful and I think they just really need that."

Stier remembers what it was like when he first learned about biomimicry. He'd gotten his master's degree at UM in forestry, in a joint program with the Peace Corps. For four years he lived in the Philippines studying flying foxes and working as an environmental educator, and when he returned to Missoula he wasn't sure what to do next. He consulted for several organizations and started working toward his PhD. But he says he missed working in "the real world." In 2006 his wife showed him a job opening at the Biomimicry Institute. "I didn't know what biomimicry was," he says. "The application was terrible. It was, like, 10 essay questions. I said, 'Forget it.'"

But the same week he heard about the job, Janine Benyus was giving a presentation at the Urey Lecture Hall. So Stier went.

"It was the best talk I'd ever seen," he says. "It just turned everything that I thought upside down. I thought that humans pretty much could not live sustainably and that technology and nature were necessarily at odds with one another. I went back that evening and wrote the whole application and got the job."

click to enlarge news_feature-4.jpg
click to enlarge Concrete can be made using the same process that corals use to build their skeletons in the ocean—a technology that could reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 to 7 percent.
  • Concrete can be made using the same process that corals use to build their skeletons in the ocean—a technology that could reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 to 7 percent.

There's an allure to biomimicry. Its proponents describe their experience with it as almost a spiritual conversion. Stier, however, is quick to point out that it's not about drinking the Kool-Aid. "We don't try to overstate the value of nature-inspired design," he says. "It's a tool in your toolbox. It's just a source of good ideas. Some people will say, 'Oh, wait a second, it's not like nature's perfect. Evolution is not about making the best design, it's about making a design that's good enough.' And that's sort of meant as a criticism. But in my mind that's really one of the efficiencies of nature: it doesn't try to go beyond what's necessary to do what it needs to do."

Butterflies and painters

Last year, Raul de Villafranca, a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, took a group of textile students to the rainforest to spend the night. The Mexico City university, which is affiliated with the Biomimicry Institute, was on a mission to design an insulating quilt as part of a challenge proposed by Bozeman company Pacific Outdoor Equipment.

"With this challenge in mind, he had them experience what it's like to sleep in a sleeping bag," says Megan Schuknecht, the Biomimicry Institute's director of University Education and Relations. "Most of them were from Mexico City, they'd never been camping, and so it was exciting: They looked to the environment they were in to solve this challenge."

Results of the 2010 POE challenge haven't been announced yet, but universities like the one in Mexico City have taken biomimicry challenges seriously. In 2009, several worked together for eight weeks to come up with a tent inspired by the nests tent worms make. POE displayed the tent in its 2010 catalog.

The Institute's third student challenge comes this fall—and this year, the winner will get at least 5,000 dollars, and the institute is hoping to help the winners figure out how to market their product. Entrants must create a biomimetic design for energy efficiency. It's the first challenge that's open to any student anywhere in the world, rather than just the institute's affiliates and fellows. That means University of Montana students are now in the running. "I'm hoping that UM students will participate," Schuknecht says, adding that since the Biomimicry Institute is in Missoula, "they'll have easier access to us."

Schuknecht works with university faculty and administrators across North America, helping them to incorporate biomimicry into their curricula. Seven of those participating universities are developing degree programs in biomimicry. She also works with biomimicry fellows who use biomimicry in their classes although they don't have institutional resources or funding.

One of the challenges of incorporating biomimicry in universities is language. Biomimicry students must be able to understand design terms as well as terms of biology. "Even if you have the support to put together an interdisciplinary class, what we find is that the language issue is critical," Schuknecht says. "Even after a couple of years of biology, you have such a specialized language in that discipline—and the same with designers. That's a bridge all of our educators address: What is the most critical language that each group needs to learn in order to do that collaborative work?"

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