Bio-Inspired Design – Week 7

This week, the Bio-Inspired Design JBS managed to fit in two awesome field trips: the Franklin Park Zoo and the SIMPeds program at Boston Children’s Hospital!

The zoo took us on a tour of the major sections of the park, explaining facts about the animals as we went along. Although seeing the animals was great, the highlight of the trip was a trip behind-the-scenes in the giraffe exhibit. We climbed up onto a balcony so that we could be face-to-face, and we all got to meet Beau, the zoo’s resident male Masai giraffe!

joint photo

On Friday, the class took a trip out to the Boston Children’s Hospital and took a look at the SIMPeds program. We went into a simulation room in the ICU and saw the training tools that physicians themselves use to practice their skills. Following a presentation there, we walked over to the program’s lab and got a chance to see their enormous 3D-printer, along with getting a close-up look at what they’re printing! This includes things like “skin” for suturing practice: simpeds skin for sutures

The work they’re doing for surgical procedures is even more amazing! If a child comes into the hospital with a uniquely formed skull or heart, a surgeon isn’t likely to have seen something like it before. In light of this, the SIMPeds lab takes MRI and CT scans of those organs and 3D-prints models of them for the surgeons! This gives the surgeons a chance to look over the model and plan out their surgery in much greater detail, hopefully reducing the amount of time the patient is actually in the operating room.

Join us next week as we head out to the Concord Field Station!

Bio-Inspired Design – Week 6

This week, the adventures of the Bio-Inspired Design class continued with final project discussions, field work, and learning about flight!

The students in the course have now come together in three groups to begin work on their final projects: designing a product that is partly or wholly inspired by a concept found in nature, then building a prototype! Each group is planning something unique, and they’ve named themselves Team Kitchen Aid, Team Suction, and Team Kitten Mittens. We’re all looking forward to what they can accomplish!


The class took a trip out to the Assabet River Wildlife Refuge with Professor Perlman to get an up close and personal look at some of the invertebrate and plant life found in the water! We saw some crazy examples of how to maneuver underwater, like the dragonfly nymph’s jet propulsion, the backswimmer’s backstroke, and the leech’s inchworm-style motion. Professor Perlman was a huge help in identifying the insects we found and showing us where to look, so here’s a shout-out and a thank you to him!

group throw cropped

The class also spent some time going over the physics of flight. We discussed pressure and how an object’s shape can alter the pressure it experiences – leading to a discussion on airfoils and lift! Making a long topic slightly shorter, the unique shape of an airfoil generates lift because the air is forced to move faster over its top than along the bottom. This makes the air below the airfoil have a greater pressure than the air above it, forcing the airfoil upwards! And obviously after learning about creating lift, the class needed to step outside to try out some wing designs for ourselves…and so began the great Bio-Inspired Design Paper Plane Challenge!

Stay tuned for next week as we visit the Franklin Park Zoo and the Boston Children’s Hospital SimPeds Program!

Bio-Inspired Design – Week 5

A shorter week for the program – but an exciting one nonetheless!

Wyss Symp Visit

On Monday, the class was lucky enough to attend the Wyss Institute Symposium on Bio-Inspired Robotics! The day was filled with speakers from across the globe, describing new innovations in the world of robotics: making them softer, smarter, and safer. We heard about improvements in robot navigation and communication from Manuela Veloso and Raffaello D’Andrea – both of whom have participated in the RoboCup: a competition to design teams of soccer-playing robots! Several speakers gave presentations on developments in the field of exoskeleton design, including ones that can increase human performance, skeletons that can be 3D printed for children who are still growing, and even soft exoskeletons that can be worn more comfortably than their rigid counterparts. These topics and more made for an inspiring and educational visit!

Internal Anatomy I

In class, we began working on internal anatomy, focusing on the digestive, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems! The students dissected their dogfish and cats, exposing the thoracic (chest area) and abdominal cavities to get an up-close look at these systems. The differences between the two were striking, obvious examples aside (like gills vs lungs). For example, the dogfish is a type of shark, and as such has a large, fatty liver that it uses to keep itself from sinking! In contrast, the cat’s liver is much smaller, but its digestive tract is far longer than the dogfish’s! Their hearts are different as well: dogfish hearts have only 2 chambers, while cat hearts have 4 chambers, like our own!

Finally, our class had a visit Image of blue downloadable version of the accessible iconfrom Sara Hendren, an artist and design researcher who teaches design and runs the Adaptation and Ability Group lab at Olin College. Much of her work revolves around empowering the handicapped population, enabling them to do what they want and love rather than what society expects of them. She co-founded the Accessible Icon Project, which aims to replace the standard accessibility icon with the more dynamic, active one shown here. The movement has been met with a wave of approval, and institutions across the country are picking it up, including the US Treasury and the Social Security Administration. Ms. Hendren’s class at Olin has also designed specialized equipment for handicapped individuals, including: a portable, collapsible podium for public speakers and a prosthetic arm for a one-armed man who wanted some help with rock-climbing.

Stay tuned for next week, when we continue with internal anatomy and head out into the field with Professor Perlman!

Bio-Inspired Design – Week 4

This week, the Bio-Inspired Design course reviewed the nervous system!

We tracked the development of our tripartite (3-part) brain from its origins as an embryo to the complex structure found in adults. These parts of the brain are:

  • The forebrain, where most conscious thought and sensory processing occur in the cerebrum.
  • The midbrain, which caps the brainstem and is involved in reward/addiction.
  • The hindbrain, where the cerebellum (used to coordinate movements) is located.
  • The midbrain and some regions of the hindbrain make up the brainstem, which maintains many of the basic functions for life: breathing, heart rate, and swallowing, to name a few.

Of course, the functions of the brain are actually much more complicated than I’ve described here; this is just a general breakdown!


In the lab, the students exposed the brains of their dogfish, then compared them to sheep brains! They observed the differences in size and organization between the two, highlighting their different lifestyles and the specializations that each type of brain has undergone. For example, as a mammal, the sheep’s cerebrum  is much larger than the dogfish’s, indicating an improved capability for thought!

Froude Number

In the biomechanics portion of the course, this week focused on the different classes of levers and on the physics of walking and running! An out-of-class activity involved calculating Froude numbers (which are related to an animal’s velocity and leg length) for some of our students; along the way, we picked up a canine volunteer! Thanks, Lulu!

Finishing off the week, we had a guest speaker come by! Her name is Brooke Flammang, and she works for the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Her lab studies fish and finned locomotion, and she’s helped design a robot that swims like a fish! What’s more, she actually discovered the radialis muscle found in shark tail fins! It was a great way to illustrate how Bio-Inspired Design can be put to work in the real world.

Next week: The Wyss Institute Symposium on Bio-Inspired Robotics and the start of internal anatomy!

Bio-Inspired Design – Week 3

This week, the Bio-Inspired Design program tackled the muscular system!

In lecture, we went over the different types of muscle tissue, muscle naming conventions, and the various functions of muscles! It turns out that they do more than just move you! Muscles also provide support for some internal organs, help regulate body temperature, and can act as a nutrient reserve in a worst-case scenario.

Muscle Lab

In the lab, the students exposed the muscles in cats, dogfish, and a variety of individual specimens, highlighting the changes in muscle tissue as organisms became more complex. The students also compared these specimens to a human model, showing how the musculature changed in the transition to a two-legged lifestyle. For example: the gracilis muscle, so named because it is thin and grass-like in the human leg, takes up half of the width of the inner thigh in the cat.

pasta test

We also covered a few more concepts in biomechanics, like Euler Bending (which causes a bend in an overall structure), local buckling (which leads to a deformation in a small region of a structure), and degrees of movement (how wide a joint’s range of motion is). The students also used a variety of pastas to examine the impact of structural changes on tensile and compressive strength!

Next week: the nervous system!

Bio-Inspired Design – Week 2

This week we stepped back from the microscopic side of biology and took a look from a more macroscopic point of view, starting with the skeletal system.

In lecture, we went over bone composition, growth, and the different types of bone formation. We also touched on some biomechanics! We asked, “Why does our body use bone to support itself instead of something much harder, like tooth enamel?”

It turns out, it’s because bone is a composite tissue! It combines the tensile strength of collagen fibers with the compressive strength of hydroxyapatite (a calcium-containing mineral). This means our bones can resist being pulled, pressed, or bent fairly well; enamel, on the other hand, is only great at resisting compression – not the best choice for supporting a body.

Outside of the classroom, we took a tour of the Harvard Museum of Natural History! Each student was assigned a species on display at the museum, and they each gave presentations on their animal’s skeletal system: what made it unique and why it evolved that way. Fun fact: the male platypus is venomous! It has a small spur jutting off the heel bone in its hind legs that it can use to inject venom.

In the lab, we compared the skeletons of various vertebrates from birds to sheep and a multitude in between! Comparing the form and function sheds some light on why the same bone can take on totally different shapes in different species: bat wings are modified hands, a turtle’s shell is an altered rib cage, and a bird’s breastbone is extended into a “keel” that supports the flight muscles!

Coming up next week: the muscular system!

Bio-Inspired Design – Week 1

Bio-Inspired Design (BID) is off to a roaring start in the classroom, in the lab, and on off-campus trips!

We started out the same way everything does out in nature, with embryological development. We learned how a single cell can multiply, migrate, and differentiate into a functioning organism; surprisingly, many hallmarks of development are conserved across vastly different species. At some point in their lives, all chordates have had gill slits – even you!

We took a trip out to the Museum of Science, looking at how BID is being applied out in the world today. We saw the RoboBees, an exhibit showcasing microrobotics and the challenges in replicating swarms found in nature. They’re not quite off the ground yet, but perhaps one day these could be a solution to the disappearance of bees throughout the world.

In the lab, we took a look at the four main tissue types on the microscopic level: connective, epithelial, muscle, and nervous. We tied this back to our developmental class, discussing the origins of each tissue and how to classify them. Fun fact: blood is considered a specialized form of connective tissue!

Coming up, we’ll be moving into the body systems, starting with the skeleton!