May 15th, 2016

“Don’t Step on the Ants!” Biomimetic Pedagogy for Sustainability in a Costa Rica Study Away Experience

By Cosette Marie Armstrong

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Table of Contents: Place and Resilience in Sustainability Education, April 2016

Armstrong JSE February 2016 Place Issue PDF

Abstract: This case example outlines a study away experience in Costa Rica focused around the Life Principles of Biomimicry for the purpose of stimulating connection with and affection for nature. Janine Benyus (1997), author or Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has long been cited for her declaration that affection is conservation’s linchpin. To address the tendency of some sustainability learning to propel learners into fear and despair, this learning experience was centered around positive solutions and emotional inspiration in nature. An outline of lesson plans, assignments, and activities all designed to foster affection for nature are outlined here for other educators who wish to foster the affective domain in sustainability learning.

Keywords: Biomimicry, nature as inspiration, study away


“Perhaps in the end, it will not be a change in technology that will bring us to the biomimetic future, but a change of heart, a humbling that allows us to be attentive to nature’s lessons.” Janine Benyus, Biomimicry


1.  Introduction

As a sustainability educator in higher education, I am all too familiar with the depression and paralysis that often follows even a small piece of bad news about sustainability among young learners. What will stimulate positive action and what has the opposite effect has often been elusive. Through trial, error, ample student feedback, and research about the student experience, I have become a proponent of the hopeful and the practical, emphasizing innovative solutions and personal action in sustainability curricula and lesson plans.

When I was recently asked to lead a study away experience to Costa Rica for my college, I was inspired to create an interdisciplinary program that would focus on affection, hopeful solutions, and practicality. Months later on a hike in a Costa Rican rainforest, a student yelled out to me as I walked along the trail, “Watch out, don’t step on the ants! [chuckling]… I have a newfound appreciation for ants.” I knew then I had done my job. The purpose of this case study is to outline for other educators the series of lesson plans, assignments, and activities that were designed to foster affection for nature, and therefore sustainability, as a focal point of a study away experience.

2.  Conceptual Development: Global Citizenship, Biomimicry, Affection, and Hope

Study away experiences are founded upon the mission of global citizenship, often defined as an awareness of and perceived membership to a global community, which has implications for responsibility and action reflective of some common values (Davies, 2006; Israel, 2012). This connection to the larger world beyond one’s borders has been facilitated by information sharing and travel but also by global environmental factors that cannot be compartmentalized. Empathy for others unknown is often stimulated when a variety of havoc on humanity caused by environmental disasters and the inherent social injustice of many of these tragedies are shared from the other side of the planet (Israel, 2012). And, it is thought, with this awareness comes a new sense of responsibility (Davies, 2006). Israel (2012) recently argued that this sense of responsibility must now translate into more sustainable action that aligns with global values and principles supportive of such.

There is much contention about what the set of global values should be, how they are adopted, implemented, and enforced (Davies, 2006), but it could be argued that having affection and empathy for nature is a part of being a good global citizen, as there is a great deal of humility that can be gained by examining how nature works and how humans intervene in nature’s work. Janine Benyus (1997), author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, argues that if we operated more like the natural world, we may realize a dramatic shift in the consequences from the many human-created issues we are challenged with today. In fact, nature has already dealt with and resolved every problem we have, and in this light, we are not alone (ibid).

Fundamental to how nature works and the potential human emulation of its practices, called Biomimicry, are Life Principles, a set of conditions conducive to life that have been identified and defined by Biomimicry 3.8, Benyus’ organization. These principles provide an important contribution to how we think about the values of global citizenship, and this conceptual process formed the foundation of this study away experience in Costa Rica. The lens of the course focused on the exploration of a very rich natural landscape and how its lessons could be applied in everyday life to foster global citizenship among learners.

A related educational challenge in this course was identifying an approach to meet these objectives while stimulating hope and optimism about a sustainable future and mitigating depression or despair. Benyus (1997) has long been cited for her declaration that affection is conservation’s linchpin. Similarly, Sipos, Battisi, and Grimm (2008) advocate for sustainability education to engage students’ hands, head, and heart, as there must be an affective component to learning that stretches beyond book learning and applied practice. Without the affective domain, transformation may be impossible; the development of attitudes and values that fuel changed behavior absent (ibid, Gorman, 2015). Indeed, cognitive and hands-on learning may be an empty mission without the ability for the learner to find connection and be reflective about one’s behavior.

In a recent special issue of this journal, “Sustainability: What’s Love Got to Do with It,” many authors illuminated the critical importance of the affective realm, and how many sustainability curricula efforts neglect this element (Gorman, 2015). Burch (2015) argues that the sustainability challenge may be best met by fostering a “sense of identity and shared fate” between humans and nature that is deeply emotional and even spiritual. This author tells a rich story of a childhood spent outside, beyond parental supervision, a wild place that fired the imagination, a seeming romance with the natural world informed by an aboriginal understanding of the nature-human relationship. In this light, nature becomes a partner, a friend, a lover; defended with passionate affinity and energy (ibid; D’Amore, 2015). There is much wisdom to the “felt” experience, especially in nature, best fostered during childhood (ibid, D’Amore, 2015; Gorman, 2015). This experience in nature has been found to be one of the most powerful influences on the evolution of values, beliefs, and attitudes that contribute to practiced care for the environment (Wells and Lekies, 2006). Love, not only fundamental to teaching and learning as well as positive relationships and the reduction of fear, is critical to our ability to thrive in life and support and value that which supports life (Gorman, 2015). Thus, to stimulate hope and reduce fear and dread around environmental and other global sustainability challenges, one may argue that affection and adoration are the gateway.

This case study outlines a study away experience in Costa Rica focused around the Life Principles of Biomimicry for the purpose of stimulating connection with and affection for nature. Sipos, et. al (2008) recommends a variety of learning objectives to engage the heart in a sustainability learning experience, several of which were particularly important to the development of this learning opportunity, such as creativity and fun, values-focused thinking, and place-based understanding. This program had several key learning goals:

  • To stimulate a sense of wonder in and affection for the natural world
  • To utilize Life Principles in everyday decision-making
  • To represent good global citizenship by developing an appropriate relationship with nature

3.  The Students

Nineteen students across four academic departments participated in the study away experience (Table 1) during Spring Break 2015 (7 days).


Table 1. Demographics of Student Participants (N=19)

Table 1. Demographics of Student Participants (N=19)

4.  The Curriculum

Pre-trip Activities

Students were asked to complete a variety of activities prior to travel. These activities were designed to engage students in a broad understanding of current societal and environmental challenges, the six Life Principles of Biomimicry (see Figure 1), and how the Life Principles may be applied in design as well as everyday life.

Play again.

Prior to the first face-to-face class meeting, students were required to download and watch the movie Play Again, a documentary about the increasing role of technology in our lives and how this virtual connection may impact our ability to connect with nature. In the film, a handful of youths are followed as they unplug and participate in a wilderness program, illustrating the benefits and consequences of engaging in the real world versus a virtual one. Experts such as Juliet Schor and David Suzuki also provide commentary about the relationship between social and environmental challenges. Students watched the film while taking notes in a template provided, which required a written response to the following questions:

  1. For what reasons are the teens in the film utilizing “screen time”?
  2. In the film, what are some of the consequences of spending increasing amounts of time in front of screens?
  3. What are some of the benefits the teens feel they gain by being “unplugged”? How does “unplugging” impact their relationship with nature?
  4. How do the teens compare being outside with being in the virtual world?
  5. What are the challenges the teens experience associated with being “unplugged”?

A discussion about the film was held during the first class meeting where students were able to share how they felt they could relate (or not relate) to the teens’ experience and identify some of the key challenges associated with disconnecting from nature. Additionally, during the first class meeting, an introduction was made to Biomimicry, showing a short film from Second Nature about the topic, and how having a positive relationship with nature is a part of global citizenship.

Easter island and the life principles.

For the next class meeting, students were asked to read two pieces of literature. The first was a chapter from Clive Ponting’s book A New Green History of the World (2007) called The Lessons of Easter Island. This reading explains the classic story of the Easter Island settlers who moved to the island in the fourth century and later met their demise when their natural resources dwindled, forcing the society to resort to sordid activities like war and cannibalism. Many of the themes in the Easter Island experience and value system mirror today’s challenges, such as competition and excess consumption. Students were also given a reading about the Life Principles entitled Biomimicry: Nature’s Time-tested Framework for Sustainability (2012) by Marie Zanowick, a certified Biomimicry professional. This reading provided students examples of how the six principles are applied by nature and how we might apply these principles in our industrial settings as well as our personal lives to solve some of the challenges we face today. Figure 1 provides an outline of the six Life Principles that I adapted, using concepts from this reading, to help students understand the application of each principle to daily life.

A jigsaw discussion was conducted in class in which students were divided into six groups to discuss one of the principles and report back to the class. After getting to know each principle, students were assigned to new groups in which they identified the various ways in which the Easter Islanders could have operated more like nature, applying the Life Principles to become more sustainable.

Figure 1. Biomimicry Life Principles Adapted for Daily Living

Figure 1. Biomimicry Life Principles Adapted for Daily Living


Practice observation.

For the final pre-trip class meeting, students were asked to peruse a reading from the Lonely Planet Costa Rica guide about the country’s flora and fauna to identify an animal or plant that they would like to learn more about. This activity was designed to help students practice making observations of the Life Principles in nature that they would need to do during their travel. They conducted independent research about a chosen object of flora or fauna that resides in Costa Rica (e.g. Howler monkey, Morpho buttefly, Quetzal) and prepared a presentation about it, its functionality, and its application of a Life Principle(s). Students shared their presentations in class, which was a great way to get them excited about and familiar with what they would see when they visited the country.

In-Country Activities

Students were asked to take photographs of what they saw and learned about while traveling. Most students kept some type of journal to take notes. They were to identify the basic functioning of objects in nature and identify the Life Principles they embody. Following is a pictorial highlighting some of the various activities students were engaged in during the travel experience where they were able to make observations in nature as well as about Costa Rican life. The author took many of the student activity photos, but students in the course submitted several images of biodiversity by way of their photo essay assignment. Note: Students provided waivers for their pictures to be taken during travel as well as consent to include their pictures and reflections in this manuscript. An IRB was also filed, receiving “exempt” status.

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Biomimicry activity.

During the afternoon of our first day touring Costa Rica, we guided students into an outdoor area of a rural resort for an activity. The Biomimicry Institute provides many activity guides, and I selected two outdoor exercises from the curricula found on this website, which is free to any educator. The first activity required students to blindfold themselves. Then, I guided them through an exercise to utilize their senses to determine which way the breeze was blowing, what the temperature was, how much humidity was in the air, from which direction the sun was glaring, to identify various animals in proximity, etc. In the second activity, students worked in pairs to blindfold each other and take turns leading the blindfolded partner over to some object in nature (e.g. leaf, tree, rock, etc.) where they had to describe it using at least three adjectives about its tactile quality.

After students spent some time orienting themselves to their surrounding without the advantage of sight, I discussed how, as humans, we over-depend on sight to tell us about our surroundings. But, if you are a plant or animal, you are more often utilizing a variety of senses. To really understand how nature does what it does, we must engage our other senses. This activity was designed to poise students to practice connecting with nature via multiple means for the remainder of their travel.

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Armstrong Image 8Visioning exercise.

On the second to last day of the trip, students were asked to grab a towel and meet me on the beach early before breakfast for a meditation exercise. During the exercise I asked the students to close their eyes and: “Imagine it is 20 years from now. Society and the industrial world now work just like nature does and is entirely sustainable…” I walked them through a day in the life, having them imagine what their home looked like, where and how they worked, what they did for fun, who they lived with, etc. After the exercise, students discussed what they saw in this future, which prompted them to think again about how our daily lives may be altered by better mimicking the natural world.

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Post Trip Reflections

Upon returning home, the final class project required students to cull their collection of observations about what they saw in nature as well as cultural aspects of Costa Rican life that embodied the Life Principles. Students were required to prepare a photo essay, providing reflections about at least 10 images, identifying the Life Principle(s) involved and how each principle could be applied in their daily lives. Following are several examples highlighted in student projects.

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 6.  Conclusion and Reflection on Biomimetic Teaching and Learning

When reviewing students’ final reflections about the trip, it was clear that students had either become acquainted or reacquainted with nature’s beauty and function, coming away from the experience with a new appreciation for what nature does, how it does it, and how we may operate more like nature in an effort to become more sustainable. Following are excerpts from several student learning reflections:

“Another thing I took away from this experience was how important nature is. Where I grew up, the city has tore down almost all the big trees to build gas stations and restaurants. In Costa Rica, the government does whatever they could to preserve their rainforests, wildlife and nature. After spending a week in the beautiful rainforests of Costa Rica, I am not at all surprised they would want to protect the nature and wildlife. I think this taught me to be more cautious of my environment and to remember that everything in nature has a purpose. This trip to Costa Rica was definitely memorable, from the friendly people to the wildlife to the sunset over the mountains; this trip was one for the books!” – L.D.

“Before this trip, I loved being outdoors, but never really took into consideration the things around me. Now, I know all the different ways things in nature can be used and am more careful about wasting things that can be reused or recycled.” – K.B.

“One of the most important things I have taken away is to respect our environment more because of the amazing things it can do and how amazing it can look. Something we all talked about is how simply the Costa Ricans live. In America we always want more and we always complain because nothing ever meets our unnecessary, unrealistic standards. While in Costa Rica I learned how I really do not need much to be happy and live a fulfilled life… I also learned a ton about Biomimicry and how astonishing our earth is.” – C.R.

“During this amazing trip I discovered a new form of appreciation for nature. Now that I’m back home I can see that [our guide] was right! Part of me didn’t come back. I grew up playing outside in the woods and thought I understood nature pretty well. Although I never thought that the leaves, trees, fruits, and even dead trees had something to teach me. Now as I walk around on campus I find myself walking slower, taking the time to look at different plants. As I walk around thoughts like, ‘Why is it this color/shape?’ crosses my mind.” – S.H.

From a teaching perspective, focusing on solutions stemming from affection and adoration of nature set a different tone for students, much different from the often depressing facts about the state of the planet, which are no less true but have a propensity to overwhelm and disempower learners. On the other hand, the Life Principles of Biomimicry were very challenging for students to comprehend. One of the reasons for this may be that most discussion of the Life Principles is largely in regards to how the principles are applied in the design field, which was not entirely relevant to this population of students. Though I did my best to adapt these materials to daily living, students often struggled to understand how they use nature’s method of functioning in their daily decision-making and practices. This was the single most important pedagogical challenge. If I were to repeat this course, I would place more emphasis and provide more examples to students to illustrate each principle. Emphasizing the affective domain during the learning process was nevertheless effective to engage students in sustainability in a positive way.

7.  References

Benyus, J. (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Biomimicry Group (2011). Life’s principles: Design lessons from nature. Biomimicry 3.8. Accessed October, 2014 at

Burch, M.A. (2015). Sustaining love. Journal of Sustainability Education 9(March).

D’Amore, C. (2015). Cultivating connection and care: The case for family nature clubs. Journal of Sustainability Education 9(March).

Davies, L. (2006). Global citizenship: Abstraction or framework for action? Educational Review 58(1), 5-25.

Gorman, J. (2015). What’s love got to do with transformative education? Journal of Sustainability Education 9(March).

Israel, R.C. (2012). What does it mean to be a global citizen? Kosmos Journal, Spring/Summer.

Sipos, Y., Battisi, B., & Grimm, K. (2006). Achieving transformative sustainability learning: engaging head, hands and heart. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 9(1), 68-86.

Wells, N.M. & Lekies, K.S. (2006). Nature and the life course: pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments 16(1), 1-24.



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