Michelle Taylor

The May cover story of Laboratory Equipment (which can be read here) focuses on the emerging scientific discipline of biomimicry, a field where scientists turn to nature for inspiration in solving some of humanity’s most complex problems.  

To learn more about biomimicry, I interviewed Beth Rattner, the executive director of the Biomimicry Institute. She provided some great information about the past, present and future of this niche field, which you can read in the article.

But as we spoke, the same thought kept creeping into our conversation—biomimicry is held back by the United States’ siloed education system.

You see, biomimicry is inherently multi-disciplinary—it relies on chemists, physicists, engineers, biologists, doctors and others. Given its place among traditional scientific fields, biomimicry thrives on the uniqueness of its researchers and teams.

Thus, Rattner said, the way we teach science now is not a fit for biomimicry. It needs to be a cross-cutting concept that’s taught across multiple disciplines. This may not be possible in today’s siloed education system; but it is welcomed in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) model.

Conceived in 2013, the NGSS are based on the “Framework for K-12 Science Education” that was created by the National Research Council. The framework is grounded in the most current research on science and science learning, and identifies the science all K-12 students should know. Once this critical framework was established, it paved the way for the new standards.

NGSS incorporates three dimensions that are integrated into learning at all levels—practices, cross-cutting concepts and core ideas.

• Practices describes behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world, and the key set of engineering practices that engineers use as they design and build models and systems.

• Cross-cutting concepts have application across all domains of science. They include: patterns, similarity and diversity; cause and effect; scale, proportion and quantity; systems and system models; energy and matter; structure and function; and stability and change. The framework emphasizes that these concepts need to be made explicit for students because they provide an organizational schema for interrelating knowledge from various science fields into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world.

• Disciplinary core ideas focus the K-12 curriculum. They are grouped into four domains: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology and applications of science.

Overall, the guidelines are intended to help students more deeply understand core scientific concepts by engaging in practices that scientists and engineers use in their professional life. In some cases, traditional classes like biology and chemistry may disappear entirely from high schools, replaced by courses that use a case-study method to teach science in a more holistic way.

“It’s a very different approach to teaching science,” Rattner told me. “It’s much more oriented around phenomena—the phenomena of the blue butterfly, or the phenomena of an opera singer shattering glass. It’s phenomena-based education, which will allow for a multi-disciplinary approach.”

Since the NGSS final draft in April 2013, close to 20 states in the U.S. have adopted the standards. State adoption was originally projected to take between one to two years; however, it is proving harder than previously thought.

Some states are taking longer to develop a curriculum based on the new guidelines, train teachers in implementation and appropriately revise standardized tests. Other states are simply not interested in the optional standards for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that both climate change and evolution are teaching topics.

Regardless of topics, it seems to me multi-disciplinary education is the way of the future. I speak to and interview hundreds of scientists a year and, I would say, at least 80 percent of them mention the multi-disciplinary aspects of their research.

In fact, it always seems to be the researchers at the very forefront of their discipline that speak passionately about multi-disciplinary research.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.