Do School Better Season 3

Biomimicry and Leadership for Middle School Students

By May 15, 2017 No Comments

Episode 47 – Anna Delia


Doris: Hey, Anna.

Anna: Hey, Doris. How are you?

Doris: I’m great. How are you doing?

Anna: I’m doing well. Wrapping up the end of the school year here. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a great year, and May is busy and wonderful.

Doris: The race to the finish, right?

Anna: I love it.

Doris: Yeah. It’s crazy. So, Anna, tell everybody a little bit about what you do and what you’ve done.

Anna: Sure, so, going back a little while, I previously taught high school science, and then at Hawken I’ve taught 7th grade science for five years. And I taught a semester of environmental science and a semester of physics and worked really hard with our math teacher in 7th grade and our other teachers in our other subject areas to do several integrated projects where possible. And then now, in this year, I have taken on the role of assistant director of the middle school, and some of my priorities are on growing experiential programs for students, trying to build some integrated curricular models where we teach several subjects together at the same time to give students a real-world experience, our service learning programs and initiatives and getting the students out into the community and interfacing with real people and real jobs as much as possible. So those are kind of the priorities that I work on now.


Doris: How fun is that?

Anna: I know. It’s a great job.

Doris: It’s great. So you came to the workshop, and why? And what did you do with it? And what happened?

Anna: Sure. So I have long been a fan of seeing something or hearing of something, and if I feel in my mind it sparks a little interest, or, like, that sounds like something I could be interested in, or that sounds like something that I would learn a lot from, or that sounds like something new and innovative that I should probably be aware of, I love to sign up. I usually, you know, well, check in with the workshop coordinators or people who’ve been before us, like, “Is this something that, you know, you think I could benefit from?” And in this case it really was. I met some teachers who’d been to your workshop. I obviously knew you, and Alison, and Tim, and I thought, you know, “Why not try this new approach that I’m hearing about and get more information?” So I was thrilled to kind of put through the request and have the time and spend a couple of days here in Cleveland, getting to know what you have been doing in the entrepreneurship program at my own school a little better and beyond that, the curriculum model that is the approach to your method of teaching and how would that play out across any classroom, in any school, in any student environment. So that was really a hopeful takeaway and definitely what I walked away from the workshop with.

Doris: That’s great. And talk about…I think your biomimicry program is so exciting. Seeing what you’ve done with it, seeing what the students are doing with it, can you talk about it? Tell us what that’s all about.

Anna: Sure, I would love to tell you a little more. A few years ago I went with a group of colleagues to see a woman named Janine Benyus, and she is the mother of the biomimicry movement, and she was coming to The University of Akron. So we put together a little professional learning group and went down to hear her talk, and we were very much abuzz afterward. We had a little dinner that we went to and kind of chatted about our takeaways. And then met as teacher several times and thought, “How can we bring this truly emerging area of science but bioengineering mostly in design to our students?” And, you know, the art teacher here, Erin Thomas, and I worked over summer to build a project, and we just approached her with, you know, “What are other teachers doing out there?”

And, as we found out, there really aren’t any middle school projects for biomimicry. We really haven’t been able to find a curriculum model that we could even follow. So we had to start asking some questions of ourselves, things like, “What do we want the students to walk away with? What do we want them to gain this week, this month, and this year and then stick with them beyond for their future work in engineering, design, science, their future careers?” So, in doing so, we came up with a model where students identify a problem with something in their everyday life. So this could be, for example, every time I open my cereal box, the lid reaps off, and it can never close again, and the cereal gets stale. That’s a problem, and when you’re 12 years old, that truly may be, like, a problem that you identify that you really wanna work on.

Doris: Yeah. Where we call the problem that’s real and matters to them, right?

Anna: Exactly, and we encouraged them at this age to look for a product, so not necessarily a process. You know, I’m thinking a real problem for me is traffic, and that’s more of a systems process than a product process. So we encourage them to look for a product. They’d bring in their item. They talk with their group. They come up with an idea together. Usually, they’d pick one that the group members decided on. And then we spend a series of days and in science class going and looking for inspiration. So we might do some internet research, but I really encourage them to get outside. So we go on some nature hikes, some focused walks, and we’re looking in nature for places that design exists. And I’m not talking about some sort of far thought out design. I guess I should just say I’m not talking about intelligent design here.

I’m talking about, you know, a nature facet, a nature feature, a nature anatomy that could lend itself to a human design that we are not yet using. So we might stop at a plant and look at the seed pod and notice how there is a lot of mechanisms going on there on that seed pod to keep that seed protected, to keep it safe from environmental factors, to help that seed travel to a new location and imprint a new offspring into a new environment. And so the students are encouraged to look and then say, you know, what physical features of this seed pod could we be using for something in human need. Could we be using these features for defense mechanisms, for travel, for attachment, for protection, for home insulation, for jacket wear, for materials that need to stick together? And then that’s when the ideas explode. That’s when they’re thinking of everything.

You know, everything in nature could be used for better design. So they go back to their problem, and they are encouraged to what we call “biologize” the problem. Is nature overcoming this exact problem in a way that the organisms would die? Their species would die off if they could not overcome it. So that’s the sort of science approach and research, and then they dive deep into that organism, and they look up all about, you know, its natural history, its anatomy, its lifestyle, its habitat, its culture. And in Art class they are learning at the same time about design in general, everything from architecture, industrial design, and fashion design, engineering design. They’re coming up with a sculpture that symbolizes their new idea, so rather than prototyping, which there is a little bit of prototyping in this process, but we found those aren’t really the most effective art pieces. They come up with a symbolic sculpture that shows their ideas. So one of my favorite projects we did with this was a group that determined that infant car seats are an issue. They don’t easily snap into cars. It doesn’t seem like cars in general are keeping children safe just on their own.

It’s a real onerous process. They’re very heavy. Is this even the best design to keep the baby safe? And then when we asked them, you know, where in nature does an organ have to carry its fully formed offspring through a lot of motion and keep it safe, they, you know, instantly went to kangaroos. What’s going on there? We have got kangaroo mothers that are traveling, you know, 35 miles per hour. How do they impact jumping up to 12 feet at a time landing and the baby stays totally safe, and it’s never harmed? The species would die if the child was harmed, if the offspring was harmed. And they learned all about the kangaroo anatomy. There are some amazing features that are going on there in that marsupial pocket and how it keeps the baby safe.

And then their new engineered design was a car seat inspired by the leg anatomy and the pouch anatomy of a kangaroo that they believed would keep that baby in a motion rocking feel within a car contained and safe at high speeds. Of course, you know, we can’t create that item here in a middle school, but that’s their idea, and they could see it through, and they have a process in place to think through an alternative design to a problem that we feel is truly innovative in the next step of design work.

You know, when this age group is in college and graduate school, we hope that they’re able to be truly designing those kinds of products to meet human needs over just going with traditional models and tweaking the paint color, for example.

Doris: Yeah, so here you have some, I’ll call it content or the objectives. You want students to learn science, and you want students to learn some various aspects and skills within art and design. And so each student is working on a problem that they’ve identified matters to them to solve, and they’re creating a solution. Whether it’s an entrepreneurship class, or biomimicry, or whatever, they’re creating in teams, a solution, and they have to learn a ton about the science, and the design, and the biology in order to be able to be generative, and innovative, and creative.

Anna: Exactly. This project lends itself to an easy individualization of science learning, because one group or one student might be really interested in anatomy of an organism that enables it to live its life in a way that will be successful for its offspring. Another group might be really interested in the chemistry of this color of different plants, and they’re doing a deep dive in chemistry. So we have the ability in middle school to spread out those subjects in such a way we’re just calling it science. And as your group needs it, they can go and access some of those finer pieces. And then, of course, they all present to each other, so everyone gets exposure. But myself as a group might really get into an area that I’m personally finding very interesting in science.

Doris: And, of course, we humans created this construct called academic disciplines. The world doesn’t work like that. Great the world is inherently interdisciplinary. But coming out of this work, you’ve got kids who are on fire about science, and I’ve seen them the day that you have them present, and they’re so proud when you do the showcase and they present what they’ve done. I’d like to hear your answer of this, but I would bet a lot of money that these kids many of them continue to work on their projects in some way after that.

Anna: First, I should say one of my favorite sort of secret weapons in the teaching tool box is, “Your parents are coming, and it needs to be done.” I love to use that phrase, you know, “An authentic audience is arriving at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, and they are going to be here to hear what you did.” At that point, I may not even be in the picture. I could be, you know, writing copies in the coffee room, which obviously I wouldn’t do. But that’s the message to them, is, “You’re not creating this for Mrs. Delia and Mrs. Thomas to review. You are creating this for another audience who will come in on a performance day and see all that you have learned. And we’d like for you to be able to talk about it. We’d like for you to be able to show them what this is all about.”

And one of my most empowering things in doing that is to give the child a sense that my teacher is my teammate in this and my teacher is not some other entity that’s accessing me. You know, I’m there with them, putting the tape on the table, and setting their poster up, and making sure that the sculptures align just so, and giving them a place to stand and say like, “This is where you’re gonna make your presentation sing to these people that are coming. Like, let’s make this amazing for them together.” And I’m not, you know, writing on a piece of paper my analysis of how they did. They’re getting that feedback in person from the visitor that is there looking at them. And some of these people in this particular project are Ph.D. fellows in biomimicry at The University of Akron, or they are the coordinator of Great Lakes Biomimicry who send a monthly newsletter out to all these organizations across Northeast Ohio about work that is going on, including their projects. I mean, these are real people…

Doris: They’re not just parents, and they’re not just teachers.

Anna: Right. And they are not writing something on a piece of paper that then goes into another location and they get back a week later from a teacher. They’re watching a human react to what they’re saying, and at the middle school level, particularly, you really can’t put a value on presenting a child with opportunities to get in-moment feedback on who they are becoming as a learner and who they are becoming as a person. And so to have an expert they’ve never met show up and also have their parents show up, which, you know, of course, is very scary sometimes or sometimes very good depending on the child, to have the support of people show up, and look at them, and listen to them, and keep their eyes open and stare and wonder at the work that they’ve created, I think, does start a little fire inside of them. Like, I had a vision and I had an idea of how something could be solved, and there are people here to listen to me, and my ideas, and my solutions, and I find that very powerful. So they are incredibly proud on that day. You can see it on their faces. You can feel the energy in the entire building as they share what they’ve done, and for me as a teacher, I feel a sense of pride in the empowerment I’ve given to students more than, you know, you learned 100% of the content, and I’m very proud of you. I literally just had hairs stand up on the back of my neck just saying that. It feels so uncomfortable.

Doris: Wow, and it’s so brilliant the projects you’ve created in terms of the learning that happens on so many levels. So, first of all, it’s a big challenge, it’s real. There are problems that the students care about that are not yet solved, and they are discovering the magic of nature, and by using it; it’s perfect.

Anna: You know, in environmental science, we talk about kind of having that nature eye. Like, if you’re a data collector in environmental science, you spend a lot of time looking around outside for the fine details, and that’s not something that anyone is born with, it’s developed over time. And if you’re gonna spend a career doing any kind of work in the environment, you know, you need to spend time in the environment, right? Just like if you want to do anything. I’m not trying to shape everybody into a future environmentalist, but I would hope that every student who goes through this project, or my classroom, or our science program is a better designer, and is better at looking at solutions to problems that are more real-world, and is more empowered to be a public speaker and a presenter around what they’ve learned and their ideas. And the avenue we’ve chosen to do that is through building in these other things, like walking outside and looking in the real world, both in nature and in, you know, the human experts that they might meet along the way.

So let me share one other new project I’ve been working on this year coming out of the workshop that I went to last summer to kind of reboost, you know, my educational philosophy and think on that a little more. I wanted to share with you how I enact a project at the school this year. When I went to the workshop, I knew I had a new group of 8th graders that had an extra study hall, and my big task was we need to find something for these students to do that grows them into better leaders. So that was sort of my reason or my rationale for going in kind of building the curriculum in a new way. What I walked away with was this model that I need to consistently give them real problems from real people in real time, and they have to present back a solution after a set amount of time when they’ve done some real research on the topic.

Doris: Which is actually similar to or the same thing with biomimicry really, right?

Anna: Right, right, and I was kind of doing it before, and this sort of clarified for me, you know, what that looks like. And getting so many examples at your workshop of how you’ve done this with your students in entrepreneurship made me see and gave me some confidence in pulling it off with a group of 30 8th graders.

Doris: You needed the methods, right?

Anna: Right, exactly. So one tool…you can’t really teach leadership, you know, as I learned. You can’t just sit down and read about leaders. You really gotta do things that empower students to be leaders or show them along the way techniques that might be needed to be a leader in the community. So the first problem that we gave them at our school was that we don’t have any connection between grades, and we’re a K-8 campus. We actually have three-year-olds here, and we don’t have that much connection. Once you get to 8th grade, you’re just doing 8th grade things. They met with the school administrators and heard very clearly that this was something that we needed to work on as a community. And then we encouraged them to go out and do research with our younger grades, with the students and the teachers, and find out what are the needs, what are the places that had been missing 8th grade engagement all these years or in recent history.

One tool we gave them actually was the Business Model Canvas although I slightly revised it to be called the community model canvas, and we looked at communities in general. What are the values this community is adding? What are the costs associated with being a member of this particular grade level or student population? What are the needs? What are the resources that are out there? Who are the key partners? So I’d have the students pick an area of the school and dive deep into learning about that as a small community. Therefore understanding what it might take to be what we call a steward of that community. So, in research, they might have spent some time in a lower school classroom looking at times of the day that were challenging for a teacher to give the so necessary individualized one-to-one support that a young child really needs. And they looked at that in sort of a model formula. Who are the partners? What are the needs? Who are the resources? What are the resources? And that sort of thing.

And then after about six weeks of their own independent research, they had to come back and present back to that initial group and give real solutions. You know, we need more people on the ground during pack up time. When 2 teachers have to do it, it takes 15 minutes and 35 seconds. When five people are in the room helping, it cut the time way down to four minutes. And these are the things that the students said they would want to do with the extra 11 minutes of time they could have each day or these are the things that teachers could achieve with an extra 11 minutes of time. That’s an extra book that gets read. That’s an extra nature walk. That’s an extra free play time space. They gave this convincing kind of database evidence for their new idea that 8th graders should have 15 minutes at the end of every day to go and help this particular kindergarten group pack their backpacks, and that’s just one example.

And so through that, they enacted a peer stewardship program where we now have 30 students that 1 to 3 times a week go to a classroom in the lower school, and they don’t just assist the teacher. They’re truly on the ground doing partnership work with a younger student and obviously creating more of a connection. A beautiful outcome of this that I particularly loved was that one of our 8th grade students asked if he could invite his peer classroom to his final 8th grade chapel talk, the speech he was going to give to the community, and he set all that up. I didn’t do it for him. He went down. He talked to the teacher. He got them to come, and the whole class came and applauded him on that very special day, and I thought that was just sort of a lovely recursive benefit of building more student ownership over needs in the community. You know, that really showed a deepening connection. So that was their first project.

Doris: That’s phenomenal, so let me say this back to you in these ways, and you tell me if this is right. So the primary learning objective you had was actually character, right? Leadership, I’m gonna define as more character than it is skill, right?

Anna: Exactly, yes.

Doris: And yet you use these methods and structures to create… they were given a problem to work on, and you created structure analytical problem-solving to make the learning happen. And the results were that in, addition to experiencing leadership, they also had to do all sorts of quantitative analysis, and research, and communications, and…

Anna: Exactly. They had to poll students. They had to find a way to take all those comments and data and put some numbers behind it. They had to come up with a convincing statistic. They had to give a beautiful PowerPoint presentation that couldn’t be marbled up with words, or texts, or mambo jambo. It needed to be clear and quick and to the point and needed to be convincing, and then by doing so, it placed them in a situation now. For weekly, they are building those character traits, they’re building those leadership skills, and they are becoming more of a leader in the community, as well as a recognizable face but also in terms of model behavior. You know, they’ve heard from the horse’s mouth what’s needed, and they have to do it.


Doris: And they have complete agency in what they’re doing, because they’re, again, creating their own solutions instead of, you know, reading a book and talking to you about what the books say to them. That’s phenomenal.

So, Anna, you’ve been teaching science for many years, and Erin has been teaching art for many years. I taught math for years. I wanna hear what your thoughts are about the trade-off that people often bring up between the engagement and excitement students have in doing a project like this versus academic rigor and depth. Okay, and I’m obviously very opinionated about this…

Anna: You know I am, too.

Doris: Yeah, you’ve heard me talk…the conversation I have with a lot of subject matter teachers I had, and yet again yesterday I had a lot of time. They said, “Well, that’s great. I mean, that’s cool that you guys can do that at Hawken and it’s a private school. Oh, that’s really cool. You can do it in my entrepreneurship course, but, of course, I’m evaluated how well my kids do on their tests, and I’m teaching, you know, 8th grade math.” And talk about that.

Anna: Okay. Well, all of this started for me truly just prior to launching full-time in the classroom. I did go to graduate school for education, and you’re reading all the time, and you’re reading books and research papers and such. And I remember coming across this story about a one-room school house in Montana that was hosting children, kindergarten through 12th grade, still in the ’90s, and there was one teacher teaching all the students at once, right? And what we think of is a very archaic version of American education, and in this particular profile of the school, the students, their one task was to fix a tractor until it worked again. They had to get this tractor working. You’re so excited to hear that, right? But at the time, I was very daunted by thinking about that. I was thinking there is a teacher out here that is getting 1st graders to fix a tractor. What am I doing? How am I ever going to be able to pull this off? What does education even mean?

And I will never forgot that feeling, because it really drove me to think, you know, “In all aspects of learning, where is the real task? Where is this going?” If the students are learning the parts of a cell, and I’ve certainly taught cell biology before as a subject in science that, “Hey, here is this information we should all know as humans,” but where is this going? Are we just having a vocabulary lesson, or are the students needing to know the terms associated with different physiology and anatomy of cells in order to more truly understand human nutrition, in order to more truly understand biological disease, in order to understand mutations and their effect on a human population, or an animal population, or an insect population, or a virus? You know, and so, for me as a teacher, I think back on that story I read, and I think, “Where is the real task that’s going to come out of all of this content?” And if I can’t identify that, they’re not deep to me, and it’s not rich learning.

Then it’s just, you know, a basics quiz, and we’re fortunate at this time that we have the internet and we have the entire knowledge of the whole human race available for any student that knows how to open an internet browser and type. So my role as a teacher, you know, giving them a list of terminology and having them shoot back to me what those are isn’t meaningful to either for us. I can look that up, and they can look that up, and I really do truly believe this. I know there are traditionalists out there that believe in kind of this content acquisition on the human brain, but if it’s not going to further a task that’s really going to have an impact in the world, I don’t think that the learning is gonna be meaningful for the students, and I also don’t think it’s going to stick, right?

Doris: I was just going to say we have research that it doesn’t stick. We have a lot of research that, if it isn’t meaningful to the individual student, it doesn’t stick. You know, if somebody is listening to this who teaches science right now somewhere, so one of the things that I think about having taught kids for many years is if I give up for a little bit, if I give up a little bit of specific content real estate, in order to engage the interest and imagination of each individual kid, and they come out of a project like yours really excited about science, and nature, and the world and also having experienced what they’re able to learn, how deep they’re able to go. Even if during the project each individual kid learned something different in a very specific thing, they went deeper, they got more engaged, and coming out of something like that, if they have to then perform on some test they’re gonna be better able to… Actually, I mean, I really have seen this. They’re better able to perform on those tests coming out of that, because they actually care about it.

Anna: You’re exactly right. That’s certainly been my experience as well having taught at this middle school level and having taught at the upper school, high school, AP level. You still get an outcome that shows that the students do obtain content knowledge where necessary, but the skills are the things that are going to stay with them much further, and I remember talking with our director at the time of bringing this project forward. I’d worked on it over the summer, as I mentioned, with our  Art teacher, and our director said, you know, “What is this whole thing? You know, what’s kind of going off the table in order to put in a three to five-week biomimicry sculpture project in science?” And I came back to that saying, you know, “Look, we want them to walk away understanding experimentation. We want them to walk away understanding how to read and interpret and write a good research paper. We want them to walk away with an understanding of nature, both anatomy, physiology, amazing features that are out there, unique features.”

And I said, “I can teach them that. We can do a little research project where they all research on an endangered species, and they make stuff, and, you know, they’ve all had a research skill, and they’ve all looked deeply at one organism, but this is going to be a whole new level. This is gonna give us a whole new era.”  Now there is no stopping that once it got started, because we could see how much it meant to our students. After the first year of piloting it, then now it’s like, okay, we got to do more stuff like this. We need to find more projects.

Doris: Exactly. So say it’s next year and you’re teaching an AP biology class in high school. You have a terrific amount of pressure with a prescribed curriculum that is still with all the changes, very content-focused. And there’s a deadline, and there’s a test, and there’s a pretty rigid curriculum. Would you consider doing your biomimicry project for three weeks at the beginning of that year with those students knowing that you’re giving up three weeks of content and the students will have to make that learning app afterwards? Would you still consider doing something like this?

Anna: Wow, that’s a great question, you know. And I think our season teachers will know that building in a skills-based project that gets your students to act on to scientific thinking, and scientific ways of writing, and finding a specific story in science that can stay with you is gonna be far more beneficial on that final exam that comes in May than just content drilling over, and over, and over again. One, there is the engagement piece, but, two, there is a real reality to those tests that is around skills of writing in the free response section. If I were a newer teacher, and I was a younger teacher when I was teaching an AP science course at high school level, and I was feeling the pressure, I might not feel intuitively that I could still pull it off, but I know you can. You’re building in a powerhouse of engagement with your students that will translate to them and their written skills coming out of that. And as someone who used to grade AP free response questions, you know when you’re reading an essay a student wrote in some far off place, that came back to you for that grading that was in the hands of a student who was led by a teacher who taught them how to think beyond just words and beyond just the facts. They have this minutiae of knowledge that came into play with some hyper-specific examples guided by their teacher, of course, but came out in their written section of that exam, which accounts for a lot of their grades.

Doris: That’s a great example. I think even you’re getting a lot of extra stuff. I think…

Anna: The easy answer is yes.

Doris: Yeah, I mean, in my experience over, and over, and over again, kids coming out of these programs and these units improve in a dramatic way their performance in traditional classes, because they’re engaged. And so, you know, in my line, it’s not about what you teach, it’s about what they learn. You know, the students in your biomimicry, they come out as middle schoolers. They come out of your program excited about science and their ability to be excited by science. How cool is that?

Anna: Right. It’s so cool. And they see it at home, you know, their parents bring that up as well. We poll their families at the final presentations, “Did you know about biomimicry before coming today?” And I actually had a parent write in one time, “I did not know about biomimicry until my 7th grader came home and told me about it.” And, for me, it’s like, “Oh, yes, we’re innovating, building this new group of students into a brand new kind of engineer that’s really going to be able to design for a way the world needs.”

Doris: Well, Anna, you inspire the heck out of me.

Anna: Thank you, Doris.

Doris: And I hope you’re ready, because I’m betting that you’re gonna have people reaching out to you who are science teachers out there and art teachers out there asking if you’ll share what you do with them.

Anna: Sure, I would love to be helpful and a resource, and I’m willing to share and chat with anybody about their next steps in their own educational journey.

Doris: Well, thank you for sharing with everybody in this conversation, and I’m just one huge fan and wildly excited about what you’re doing.

Anna: Thank you, Doris, I really appreciate it. Have a great rest of your day.

Doris: You, too.

Doris Korda

Author Doris Korda

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