3.A26 | Fall 2005 | Undergraduate

Freshman Seminar: The Nature of Engineering


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Introduction

Course Introduction by Prof. Lorna Gibson

Course Overview

This Freshman Seminar investigates why similar shapes occur in so many natural things and how physics changes the shape of nature. Why are things in nature shaped the way they are? How do birds fly? Why do bird nests look the way they do? How do woodpeckers peck? Why can’t trees grow taller than they are? Why is grass skinny and hollow? What is the wood science behind musical instruments? Questions such as these are the subject of biomimetic research and they have been the focus of investigation in this course.

This year’s course used some resources at the Museum of Science; Sue Stoessel from the museum acted as a liaison.


Benyus, J. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York, NY: HarperTrade, 2002. ISBN: 9780060533229.

Suzuki, David. “Biomimicry: Learning from Nature (Part 1 and 2).” The Nature of Things. Two 45-minute videos from the CBC television series.

Course History

This course is taught each year in the fall. The particular focus has evolved from year to year. Some materials from previous years are included in this OCW Web site.

2004: The Engineering of Birds

Student posters, slides and demonstrations were created as a service learning project. Service learning subjects incorporate a community service project into the academic learning experience. In this subject we prepared educational displays on engineering principles related to birds which we gave to the Boston Nature Center and the Museum of Science.

2003: The Engineering of Trees

We studied the mechanical principles behind trees, wood, and wood products. We investigated what limits the height of a tree, the mechanics of wood, and the wood science behind musical instruments.

2002: Structures in Nature and Biomimetic Engineering

We studied many of the structures found in nature. For example, why is grass skinny and hollow? Why are some leaves full of holes?


This course has received assistance from MIT students Robyn Allen, Matthew Dawson, and Abel Hastings; and Sue Stoessel from the Boston Museum of Science.

Financial support for the 2003 projects was provided by the MIT Alumni Fund for Excellence in Education.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0408259. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2005