When it comes to innovative designs that are effective and sustainable, it’s tough to beat the work of Mother Nature. That simple fact has inspired both the field of biomimicry—innovation based upon the models and systems found in the environment—and a fascinating new course at Tufts. Foundations of Design: Methods of Making, offered for the first time last fall, used biomimicry to introduce students to form and function. The students were asked to create designs for collapsible and expandable objects—looking for ideas in all the ways that plants and animals move to adapt to their environments.

Funded by a Tufts Innovates grant, the class was the first to be jointly offered by the School of Engineering and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA). It was led by Jennaca Davies, who teaches design technology and metals at the SMFA, and Darryl Williams, dean of undergraduate education at the School of Engineering. “We kept asking the students, ‘What is your inspiration? How do you think about a fish?’” Davies said. “We encouraged them to step back and find something in nature to be inspired by and to be creative with.”

Part of the vision when Tufts acquired the SMFA in 2016 was faculty and staff from across the university working together to incorporate design into all sorts of classes and disciplines. Williams said Foundations of Design was an important step in making that vision a reality. “Engineering students have expressed wanting more design-based, hands-on experiences in their academic pursuits,” he said. “Synergy is a golden opportunity.”

The final project in the Foundations of Design course tasked students with creating a working toy prototype—suitable for ages two to eight and able to fit in a standard shoebox—using 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other tools in Tufts’ Bray Lab. With an eye toward the natural world, one team tucked a carefully folded fabric-and-wood bat into a tube to create a projectile game (“Batzooka”), while another produced a marble run modeled after an ant colony.

The professors hope to offer the class again in the future. In the meantime, Davies is keeping the Tufts Innovates spirit alive this spring by teaching Emotional Design in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, a course that looks at how design and real-world problems intersect. The students are working on ways to meet the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations—including eliminating poverty, assuring clean water access, and reducing inequality. Over at the SMFA, meanwhile, Davies is also teaching Biomimicry in Art and Digital Fashion.

“We could build a design community at Tufts,” Davies said. “Our work so far is just a stepping-stone to an innovative future.”

Portrait of Laura Ferguson

Laura Ferguson, senior writer at Tufts and regular Tufts Now contributor, can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.