Tropical classroom inspires exhibit, Smithsonian field station design

Heidi Fischer with amphibian

Visualize this ASU classroom: a dark green Panamanian tropical jungle. Light filters through a dense thicket of leaves. A sloth moves overhead so slowly that a leaf nearby spins unscathed for minutes before three elongate toes reach for it. Monkey poop, parrot feathers and leaf matter rain down, startling brilliant butterflies into flight. Leaf-cutter ants teem on the decaying forest floor – alongside six teams of students from ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the School of Life Sciences.

What brings them to this rich, biodiverse environment? The graduate students are partners in the traveling studio program developed by The Design School at ASU, which journeyed to Gamboa, Panama, to collaborate with the program’s partner, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The process of taking processes from nature and applying them to address human needs is known as biomimicry. The students’ assignment was to create biomimetic architectural and product-design concepts for a scientific field station on the Gigante Peninsula, a remote spit of land located in the Panama Canal Zone.

And create they did. Fourteen biomimetic products were developed by the students, some of which form the core of an exhibit “Learning from Organisms” opening at 11:15 a.m., Jan. 24, in the Life Sciences Building C-lobby.

“Adaptions of species inspire solutions to human problems,” says Philip White, one of the studio’s instructors. White is an associate professor and ecological design strategist whose focus, besides teaching, is the development of ecologically intelligent products and systems. “This training environment is so exciting because it is a real site, with real needs and real-world constraints. Developing a Smithsonian field station emphasizes believable and feasible, not just theoretical and conceptual.”

The challenge of designing permanent structures on the Gigante Peninsula in Panama tests architects on multiple fronts, says White. Buildings are subject to insect infestations and periodic flooding. Obtaining sunlight for solar power and room lighting, as well as capturing cross breezes for natural cooling, requires destructive cutting of openings in the forest canopy. Such design challenges are what engaged architectural student Adam Tate’s interest. Tate developed plans for a mobile research laboratory built on a floating pontoon structure, with joints and springs modeled after elements of the trap-jaw ant.

The exhibit will showcase Tate’s design, along with a backpack inspired by the musculoskeletal structure of the three-toed sloth, an umbrella derived from bats, which will resist wind torsion, and a design for a photovoltaic canopy based on lobster eyes - perfect for the challenges of the low light environment of the jungle. The posters will be on display through Feb. 9.
“The more uncertainty there is, the more freedom there is for new ideas,” says architect Michael Rotondi, an architecture professor in the course. “The beauty of this experience in Panama is that typically designers go into a challenge with preconceived notions, drawing from what they know. Working with other students and thinking creatively outside of their areas of training spurred invention and problem-solving.”
However, it wasn’t just architects and designers who developed products based on their experience. The interactive cross-disciplinary discussions, visits with Smithsonian scientists and interactions with ASU instructors, which included White, biologist Rick Overson and Heidi Fischer, coordinator of InnovationSpace, also had doctoral biology students Elizabeth Cash and Clint Penick reaching for their design notebooks. 

Scientists at ASU have been using concepts of biomimicry in various studies across the campuses. For example, Ana Moore and Thomas Moore, both Regents' Professors at ASU in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, have work that is funded by the National Science Foundation to use bio-inspired approaches to improve solar energy conversion. One of their projects is a photovoltaic cell that utilizes design concepts drawn from photosynthesis in leaves. Scientists Jeff Yarger and Gregory Holland also are deconstructing the molecular makeup of spider silk hoping to create stronger, light-weight materials, such as bulletproof vests and artificial tendons. 

Combining graduate curricula to encompass biology, design and architecture is the newest outgrowth of institutional investments advanced through an ASU-Smithsonian partnership forged by Robert Page, vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in 2010. Darren Petrucci, director The Design School in the Herberger Institute, and Brian Smith, director of the School of Life Sciences, see this traveling studio classroom as the first of a number of classes, experiences, and, possibly, degree programs that they will partner on. 

"Collaborating with The Design School in the Herberger Institute provides us with an exciting opportunity to apply biological principles to functional design,” Smith says. “And this relationship will provide our students with career options which expand well beyond biology."  

"ASU is in the unique position to become a leader in biomimetic design by leveraging its top-tier programs in a collaborative relationship with some of the world's foremost experts in biological organisms," Petrucci says.