National institutes and education initiatives emphasize the need to prepare future biologists to apply discoveries in science towards solving problems that are both social and scientific in nature. Research from socio-scientific, design-based, and problem-based learning demonstrates that contextualized, real-world tasks can improve students’ ability to apply their scientific knowledge in practical ways to navigate social problems. Biomimicry Design is an interdisciplinary field requiring biology and design skills; it informs the creation of sustainable designs through emulation of biological structures and functions that arise as a result of natural selection. Notably, engaging in biomimicry design targets an important biology and engineering learning outcome: understanding of how structure influences function. This study leveraged the practices of biomimicry along with those of design-based learning (DBL) to improve student outcomes in an evolutionary biology undergraduate course. Through DBL, the authors aimed to (1) ignite deeper understanding of how structure determines function in nature (a cross-disciplinary concept) and (2) help students to consider new ways this concept can benefit society (a science process skill).
We randomly assigned two sections of an upper-division evolutionary biology course to either a biomimicry DBL (DBL group) or species comparison (comparison group) curricular design. Students in the course were exposed to a 1-day lesson, then 1-weeklong case study, and then a final project focused on either biomimicry species-to-human design comparisons (DBL condition) or species-to-species comparisons (comparison condition). To assess the targeted outcomes, we analyzed students’ responses from a pre-post assessment. Students in the biomimicry section were more likely to apply their biological structure–function knowledge to societal benefits when leaving the course. Students in both sections showed comparable gains in structure–function understanding, but there was no change in the number of students who used misconception language in their post-course compared to pre-course responses.
We conclude that our DBL curriculum, above and beyond the comparison curriculum, may support students’ ability to apply biological concepts to societal benefits without compromising structure–function understanding. Overall, these results provide rationale for incorporating tasks situated in DBL to address socio-scientific issues in biology courses.