PhD candidate Laura Stevens likes to inspire her students

Her students are inspired by her to design beautiful things, based on nature. Laura Stevens – a camp fire girl and nature activist in her youth – explores how we can mimic nature in our designs. It's called biomimicry. Today, October 8, she will receive her PhD at TU Delft for her dissertation Analogical Reasoning in Biomimicry Design Education. Students play an important role for her. In her work and for her PhD.

Laura opens a drawer for me. Full of goose feathers. I get an explanation about the function of the different types of feathers. About what we can learn from this when we design new, sustainable products. “Biomimicry has always been about sustainability. If we want to design sustainably, who better to learn from than from nature, after so many billions of years of evolution?!” The ethical factor is important here, she says very firmly. “The product that you develop and that you have copied from nature is only sustainable if it meets high ethical standards. For example, child labor and biomimicry can never be reconciled.” It's just the beginning of a very interesting conversation.

Protecting manatees

Laura Stevens grew up on the East Coast of the United States. She was a real camp fire girl. She later devoted herself to Florida manatees who were injured by outboard motors. The love for nature was instilled in her at home from an early age. She studied Wildlife Management at Brevard College in North Carolina, landscape architecture at the University of Florida in Gainesville and architecture at Delft University of Technology. “In the triangle of purpose-passion-gift, nature is for me purpose and passion. Teaching is my passion. In the heart of that triangle – we call it the sweet spot – everything comes together. For me, that heart is biomimicry.”

Laura is part of 2 research groups: Circular Business and Urban Metabolism, both belonging to the Center of Expertise, Mission Zero of The Hague University of Applied Sciences. She is the driving force behind the university-wide minor Design with Nature of the Industrial Design Engineering programme. “Every student must write a motivation letter prior to this minor. In it I read how enthusiastic students are about sustainable development or about applying sustainably developed products in a product or service. That's their drive. Biomimicry is by definition interdisciplinary. If you want to develop something sustainably, there should be as many backgrounds as possible at the design table.”

"They are so driven"

Laura knows how to inspire students with very small things from nature. “Look at the democratic way honeybees interact with each other. To the way in which a zebra finch constantly processes feedback. To the great buoyancy of the sea turtle. Isn't it wonderful when that gives students design ideas.”

In the booklet ‘Proud’, 5 students from Industrial Design Engineering tell how – inspired by Laura Stevens – they developed The Floating Coconet, a filtration system that should solve plastic pollution in rivers and seas. Laura: “They looked at the filtration techniques of the manta ray and basking shark. Their design team became a finalist in the top 10 in the 2019 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. This year's group, the Nature Inspired Cooperation (NIC) student team, is another such gem. They became finalists in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge with their research into forms of mutualistic cooperation in nature, in order to boost human cooperation in the energy transition. I love that! They are so driven, they continue to work with biomimicry even after the minor.”

'Discover their trigger'

The secret behind it is the theme of Laura's dissertation. She spoke weekly with her students about what they needed to copy things from nature and to incorporate that into a modern design. Laura: “You can become fascinated by nature. You may be impressed by the function of, for example, colors in nature. But what do you do with that? By far the most difficult thing in biomimicry is making the transition to a new design. In other words: how do you arrive at analogical reasoning? One student in the minor studies why a shell has a spiral shape. Another how a West African elephant copes with the heat in its habitat. I bring all knowledge of nature and design (macro level) to a micro level through teaching with my students: the translation from biology to design.”

‘If you know how to trigger students, you no longer have to push them to learn’
 
The fact that Laura manages to encourage enthusiasm in the students along in that journey from day 1 has everything to do with her adding elements in the research and lessons that students themselves really want. “One of the main conclusions in my thesis is: if you make students so enthusiastic, you are cultivating curiosity. You don't have to push them anymore. Discover the trigger in their learning process and they just want to learn more.”

Lots of hand drawing

Laura completed her first master's degree in architecture in 1996. In 2020 she obtained her second master's degree in biomimicry. At that time she was already working on her PhD. Wasn't that minor a bit too much of a good thing? Laura: “Absolutely not. I couldn't write my dissertation without the students. My 2 paranymphs – people you can fall back on during the PhD ceremony – are former students. Through my masters I learned a lot of new things about the application of biomimicry. I passed this on to the students in the minor. At the same time, I investigated what triggers them. How they make the translation from biology to the new product.

I tested that translation. Not only me, but also a researcher/professor at Arizona State University in Phoenix and a researcher/professor at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. We compared the results and drew conclusions from them. It turns out, among other things, hand drawing on a blackboard or on paper does something with your brain, so that you understand how it works in nature and how you can apply it. The overarching patterns in Nature were leading and breaking up the translation phase helped improve results. If I hadn't had my students I would never have found out. The connection between teacher and researcher is very important, even if you are not doing a PhD. Students provide a constant stream of feedback.”

Mimicking ecosystems

Laura plans to share her knowledge as much as possible. “The fact that my dissertation is now available is not enough. That focuses on a small part of biomimicry. You can imitate shapes from nature. You can mimic processes and behavior. But the hardest part is mimicking ecosystems. We need the latter if we want to examine the inner-city areas. How can logistics within the city be improved? How do we communicate better in the city? How can buildings 'talk' to each other? How do all those improvements fit into one system? I want to investigate how biomimicry can offer added value here. And I want to write books about basic biomimicry. That is absolutely not felt as a task. Because learning from nature is not only important, it is also so much fun!”