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Biomimicry exhibit encourages kids to see nature in new ways

DJ McCauley
Delaware Public Media
A child explores the biomimicry exhibit at the Delaware Mueseum of Natural History

A University of Delaware professor is making her research more accessible by partnering with the Delaware Museum of Natural History to connect it with kids.

Dr. April Kloxin’s team is currently working on ways to engineer cultures for studying disease progression - like creating mock-tissues to study cancer cell growth.

UD intern contributor DJ McCauley tells us Kloxin’s exhibit at the museum takes some of the same principles of biomimicry that inform that work and shows young people where they can see them in the world around them.

Building blocks, paper-airplane templates, and clear plastic tubes filled with sticky burrs and felt line a long table in the Delaware Natural History Museum. These items, among others, make up an interactive display on "biomimicry" -- the process of using designs and shapes from nature as an inspiration for man-made structures or materials. The display was designed for the museum in collaboration with Dr. April Kloxin and her team, located at the University of Delaware.

The exhibit, back at the museum for a second time, focuses on inspiring curiosity about the natural world in children of all ages. "To reach pre-K kids, before they are even literate, we have to find a way to break down complex concepts," said Dr. Kloxin.

Kloxin’s current research focuses on ways to engineer cultures for studying disease progression -- like creating mock-tissues to study cancer cell growth, for example. Outreach and education are important goals for her, too. The museum was a natural collaborative choice.

Credit DJ McCauley / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Univ. of Delaware professor Dr. April Kloxin at her office on the UD campus in Newark.

“We wanted to bridge this area with what people are more familiar with, in terms of natural history and nature, and bring in science and engineering,” Kloxin said in an interview in her UD office. "It was a humbling and enriching experience."

More than just a kiosk or display, the exhibit offers hands-on ways for children to interact with everyday items that also happen to have applications in the sciences. Take hydrogels, for example: commonly found as the absorbent component in diapers, that same substance has applications in medicine, as a method of drug delivery, and in basic research as a new medium for growing cells that scientists can study. In the display at the museum, children can see hydrogels in the form of a water-activated growing dinosaur.

Likewise, children can see how nature perfected Velcro technology through hooks and loops by interacting with burs and felt placed in sensory tubes. These clear plastic cylinders let kids see objects from all angles and interact with them in a controlled way.

The goal of this display is to inspire children to see the natural world as a means for creation and innovation. Using the natural world as inspiration for human innovation, children who cultivate their curiosity and critical thinking may one day make the next big breakthrough.

Funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the exhibit is the culmination of several years worth of refining and re-designing by Dr. Kloxin and her team of chemical and biomolecular engineers.  Her students take their research and bring it to the public in multiple forms, including a podcast called “Rise and Science.”

“I love seeing my students take what they’ve learned in a completely different way to make an impact,” Kloxin said. Her students played a big part in developing the exhibit, from designing the moveable kiosk to working on the informational slideshow.

At the museum, the display neatly integrates with current exhibits, from the traveling "Design Zone" focused on how mathematics and engineering interact with creative thinking, to the exhibit featuring nature photography by local artists.

This interaction between the natural world and the arts and sciences is a focus for the museum as well. The biomimicry exhibit sits in front of a collection of nature-inspired photographs and integrates with the museum itself through a scavenger hunt.

Credit DJ McCauley / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The exhibit uses small scavenger hunt panels like this one throughout the museum to engage children

Just above the display is a moveable icon that links aspects of the museum to the concept of biomimicry. Visitors can find these icons in a variety of exhibits -- like near a mural of a bumblebee, where children learn that scientists have created the "RoboBee" to pollinate crops as a stand-in for decreasing bee populations.

"We were thinking of this idea of how nature inspires technology and technological development and how we could highlight what they have on display," said Dr. Kloxin.

Helen Bilinski, the director of exhibits for the museum, emphasized that the scavenger hunt is "just another entry point for someone to relate to science. We want to meet people on different levels, giving them confidence and empowering them." 

Exhibits like that created by Dr. Kloxin and her team also add another important element to science education: the presence of a diverse array or role models for children. Dr. Kloxin's voice is featured in the voiceovers in the exhibit, and photographs of her team (featuring a number of female scientists) are seen on the final slide of the rolling slideshow in the exhibit.

"It's good for kids to see that it was an active, working scientist who is also a woman that created this exhibit." - Dr. April Kloxin, UD professor.

"It's good for kids to see that it was an active, working scientist who is also a woman that created this exhibit," Kloxin said. As for her team: "You're hearing our voice, you're seeing our science, and at the end you'll see our pictures."

Helen Bilinski also emphasized the importance of seeing women in science. "Our two top scientists at the museum are female," she said. "It's really nice, because women are underrepresented in the does empower. They are role models."

Beyond representation of women in the sciences, the Museum is also actively working to grow the relationship between teens and local scientists through their up-and-coming Teen Science Café program. This national program, administered at the local level, seeks to create conversations between the current generation of scientists and the scientists of the future through informal activities, Q & A sessions, and meet-and-greets.

Both Kloxin and Bilinski emphasized the need for children to find mentors that can nurture their curiosity and scientific instincts. Dr. Kloxin recently published a comment in Nature Reviews on the importance of mentorship for underrepresented populations in the sciences.

As Kloxin said, "I wanted to capture in the comment that we are not robots, and that scientific breakthroughs come from interacting with people and we should celebrate that.