The engineer of 2020 is expected to not only offer technical ingenuity but also adapt to a continuously evolving environment while being able to operate outside the narrow limits of one discipline and be ethically grounded in solving the complex problems of the future. To address the competencies of the future engineer, undergraduate education must train students to not only solve engineering challenges that transcend disciplinary boundaries, but also communicate, transfer knowledge, and collaborate across technical and non-technical boundaries. One approach to train engineers in these competencies is teaching biomimicry or bio-inspired design in an engineering curriculum, which offers relevance to professional practice as well as an affective hook to frame complex, cross-disciplinary problems. This research addresses the need for undergraduate student training in multidisciplinary design innovation through the creation of instructional resources grounded in Concept-Knowledge (C-K) Theory. C-K theory is used as it is known for integrating multiple domains of information and facilitating innovation through connection building. The instructional resources include lectures, in-class activities, assignments, rubrics and templates that scaffold the discovery and knowledge transfer processes such that the natural designs can be used to inspire engineering solutions.
The instructional resources have been deployed at two predominately undergraduate institutions (PUIs) in the second-year engineering curriculum. All students were given a lecture on bio-inspired design and asked to complete the C-K mapping template in class as part of learning activities to understand the process of discovery, and again in their assignment to scaffold application to the course project. Analysis of the student-generated templates using a rubric shows that students were able to successfully use information (knowledge transfer) to make connections between biology and engineering for creating solutions for design problems. Additionally, all students were asked to respond to six reflection questions regarding the content (biology) and process (bio-inspired design). Qualitative content analysis of second-year engineering student reflection statements shows that in both populations the instructional resources resulted in significant learning of both biology and bio-inspired design, as well as learning engagement and value of the experience. The themes that emerged from the student responses to each reflection question correlate well with the objectives of the research. An unanticipated, but significant, result is that some students used existing biology knowledge to help understand engineered components and systems, meaning they learned more about engineering through biology. This unanticipated result points toward the significance of teaching bio-inspired design in an engineering curriculum. Teaching bio-inspired design in an engineering curriculum using interdisciplinary approaches will not only develop competencies of the 21st century engineer but also enable undergraduate students to become change agents and promote a sustainable future.
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