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Engineering For Non Engineers: Learning From "Nature's Designs"

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Technology Literacy for Non-Engineers

Tagged Division

Technological Literacy Constituent Committee

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.635.1 - 12.635.13



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Paper Authors


AnnMarie Thomas University of Saint Thomas

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AnnMarie Polsenberg Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of St. Thomas. She holds a Ph.D and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Caltech, and an S.B. in Ocean Engineering from MIT. From 2004-2006 she was a faculty member at the Art Center College of Design teaching engineering courses that she developed for non-engineers.

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Mark Breitenberg Art Center College of Design

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Mark Breitenberg is the Dean of Undergraduate Education at Art Center College of Design. He holds a Ph.D in Literature and Critical Theory and a Master’s in English Literature from the University of California, San Diego. As the Chair of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Art Center (2000-2004), he created a new curriculum uniquely designed to lead and support the studio programs based on the transdisciplinary fusion of liberal arts and sciences and studio practices. He is a member of the Executive Board of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID). As Chair of Education, he has led the creation of ICSID’s new Global Education Network, which allows design schools around the world to share ideas, projects, design competitions and teaching methods, as well as providing links to employment opportunities with design companies.

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

Engineering for Non-Engineers: Learning From “Nature’s Designs”


This paper presents a course on biologically inspired design and engineering offered at Art Center College of Design. While most engineering classes are designed for engineering majors, and offered at schools with an engineering program, this course, “Nature’s Designs,” serves as a stand-alone introduction to basic engineering principals to artists and designers. Using the natural world as a reference point, particular emphasis is placed on principles of strength, structure, and form.


“Nature’s Designs” is intended to serve as a stand-alone course for in basic engineering principles as demonstrated by nature and natural systems. All students in the class are enrolled in the college as majors in an art or design discipline. The course has no prerequisites and thus a large percentage of the students have only minimal high school math and science training. Many of the students enter the class admitting to a fear of science and engineering, and claim to be “no good” at these topics. These factors combine to create a nontraditional engineering classroom. Therefore, this class strives to teach both engineering concepts as well as the relevance of engineering for non- engineers.

Over the course of this semester-long course, students are challenged to observe the world around them and investigate the “whys” behind naturally occurring phenomena. Students are asked to compare and contrast man-made design and construction techniques with structures and systems in nature. Special effort is made to choose topics which are especially relevant for students in design disciplines: Why does nature seem to favor flexible materials? What is color and what role does it play in biology? How do the five senses actually work? Why are there no wheels on Nature’s transportation systems? The course closes with the students doing a final project on a topic of their choosing that bring together their major discipline (e.g. transportation design, product design, advertising or fine arts) with an in-depth study of a natural system, which can be anything from echolocation in bats to airflow in termite mounds.

Course Objectives

The premise of “Nature’s Designs” is that, while many non-engineering students are intimidated by an engineering class, they are almost certainly comfortable observing the world around them. Using observations from nature as a starting point, this class compares and contrasts the natural world with the manmade world and uses basic engineering and biology to explain the similarities and differences. As published in the school’s course catalog, the summary and objectives of this course are as follows.

Thomas, A., & Breitenberg, M. (2007, June), Engineering For Non Engineers: Learning From "Nature's Designs" Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1947

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