Wissa, Alleyne inspire design through nature

Assistant Professor Aimy Wissa.
Assistant Professor Aimy Wissa.
The partnership between MechSE assistant professor Aimy Wissa and Marianne Alleyne, a research scientist in the Department of Entomology, has proven to be an inspiring one for students from many disciplines. 
Alleyne designed modules and taught an online course on bio-inspiration, and Wissa dreamed of teaching a course that would include students from engineering and biology to teach them about bio-inspired design. 
The result of their shared passions is the new course, ME 498 or IB 496, a bioinspired design course focusing on four topics: materials, complex systems, locomotion, and sensing. 
They have been planning the course since fall of 2016 and both agree that in their fields, it is the perfect time for it. 
“I think lately, in the last decade or so, we’re reaching a plateau in what we can do as engineers alone to reach the current challenges,” Wissa said. “I think we can’t do it alone anymore, and we can now look to nature for inspiration.”
Similarly, advancements in engineering have helped biologists learn more about design. 
“I think it’s a really exciting time,” Alleyne said. “Because we can image things at a small scale where nature does really cool stuff, and we also have computing power ¬– so we can really analyze what’s happening on a large ecosystem scale and at the microscale.” 

In the new course, they are guiding their students through the entire design process, all the way to prototyping. To start, they have sent their students out into nature to observe biological organisms and their functions and have assigned case studies from experts in biology and engineering. 
From there, on the engineering side, the students will draft a patent that takes into consideration the four topics, and use inspiration from nature to solve an engineering challenge. Then, from a biology perspective, they will match an ecosystem with an animal to learn how the behaviors and functions of the animal help them survive in the chosen ecosystem.
This all leads up to a final project that will push students through to the prototyping phase. 
“The overall class structure is going through the design process,” Alleyne said. “From identifying a problem or identifying a solution in nature all the way to prototyping. This is a different approach because most bio-inspired design courses do not include the prototyping phase.”
In addition to the design aspects of the class, Wissa and Alleyne hope to teach the students how to communicate effectively with people outside of their discipline. 
“Just the experience alone is going to force both disciplines to go out of their comfort zone and communicate beyond the communities that already understand what they’re saying,” Wissa said. “So even if they never work with another biologist after this class, they can sit in a room with a chemist or a physicist or a material scientist or a business person, and when it comes time to explain some technical issue, they’ve already developed that part of their vocabulary where they can go outside their communication comfort zone and reach across the table.”