Bioinspiration as a method of problem-based STEM education: A case study with a class structured around the COVID-19 crisis

Emilie C. Snell-Rood, Dimitri Smirnoff, Hunter Cantrell, Kaila Chapman, Elizabeth Kirscht, Elizabeth Stretch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Bioinspiration is a promising lens for biology instruction as it allows the instructor to focus on current issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. From social distancing to oxygen stress, organisms have been tackling pandemic-related problems for millions of years. What can we learn from such diverse adaptations in our own applications? This review uses a seminar course on the COVID-19 crisis to illustrate bioinspiration as an approach to teaching biology content. At the start of the class, students mind-mapped the entire problem; this range of subproblems was used to structure the biology content throughout the entire class. Students came to individual classes with a brainstormed list of biological systems that could serve as inspiration for a particular problem (e.g., absorptive leaves in response to the problem of toilet paper shortages). After exploration of relevant biology content, discussion returned to the focal problem. Students dug deeper into the literature in a group project on mask design and biological systems relevant to filtration and transparency. This class structure was an engaging way for students to learn principles from ecology, evolution, behavior, and physiology. Challenges with this course design revolved around the interdisciplinary and creative nature of the structure; for instance, the knowledge of the participants was often stretched by engineering details. While the present class was focused on the COVID-19 crisis, a course structured through a bioinspired approach can be applied to other focal problems, or subject areas, giving instructors a powerful method to deliver interdisciplinary content in an integrated and inquiry-driven way.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16374-16386
Number of pages13
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful to The University of Minnesota and the College of Biological Sciences for supporting this course as part of the 2020 UMN Pandemics Curriculum and to two engineers?Chris Hogan and Jeff Tithof?visiting the class (virtually) to provide input on our ideas. Gillian Roehrig of the UMN STEM Educational Center provided insightful feedback and ideas in the development of course activities to encourage creative and integrative thinking. Amanda Hund, Tim Mitchell, Alex Shephard, Charlotte Devitz, Ashley Darst, Martha Snell, and Ford Denison provided valuable feedback on an earlier version of the manuscript. Editorial input and feedback from two anonymous reviews greatly improved the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • SARS-CoV-2
  • biomimetics
  • creativity
  • problem-based learning

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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