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Biologically Inspired Design: A Unique Multidisciplinary Design Model

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Multidisciplinary Course Innovation I

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.253.1 - 13.253.10



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Paper Authors

author page

Brent Nelson Georgia Institute of Technology

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Biologically-Inspired Design: A Unique Multidisciplinary Design Model


Many natural organisms have developed and adapted solutions to technical challenges that are similar to those encountered in the engineering world, including developing hard and tough materials, optimizing the division of labor and resources, maintaining constant temperature, and generating efficient propulsion in air and water. Biologically-inspired design (BID) refers to applying such natural solutions to generate innovative design solutions for human-encountered technical challenges. Such design is inherently multidisciplinary, bringing together disciplines both from engineering and the sciences. This article reports on ethnographic studies of multidisciplinary student design teams and a multidisciplinary team of educators in a senior-level undergraduate BID class offered at our institution. The most significant challenges came at the administrative level of the course among the multidisciplinary educators rather than among the multidisciplinary students. Differing perceptions about design and failure to collaborate as a multidisciplinary team among the educators led to unanticipated challenges during the administration of the course. The potential for discipline-specific views about design is identified as is the need for multidisciplinary educators to work together as a team both in defining the goals of a course as well as in advising students in the course.


Current and future technical challenges are expected to become increasingly complex, requiring contributions from multiple disciplines. For this reason, ABET accreditation criteria and the Engineer of 2020 report have identified the ability to function on multidisciplinary teams as an essential skill for current engineering students to develop. Many engineering programs try to achieve multidisciplinary student experiences through design classes that bring together students from different fields within a discipline, or occasionally different departments within engineering1,2. A broader level of multidisciplinarity can be achieved in Biologically-Inspired Design (BID), which refers to the use of natural organisms and systems as inspiration for designing solutions to engineering challenges3-6. Such design inherently requires truly multidisciplinary collaboration, incorporating knowledge both from the biological domain in order to identify natural sources of inspirations as well as from the engineering and design domains in order to physically realize the inspirations. Furthermore, while in typical engineering design the problems are posed at the outset, the reverse is often true in BID. Interesting natural solutions are often identified first, applications are sought for those solutions second, and the natural solutions are adapted and applied to the applications last7. Such a design process more closely resembles entrepreneurship than design and offers a unique opportunity to observe practitioners’ abilities to identify applications, evaluate existing technologies, and define problems, all while working on multidisciplinary teams.

This paper reports on an ethnographic study of an undergraduate design course explicitly focused on bringing together students in a truly multidisciplinary setting, spanning across colleges. Ethnographic studies are anthropological tools used especially within the social sciences for

Nelson, B. (2008, June), Biologically Inspired Design: A Unique Multidisciplinary Design Model Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4238

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