The Sky's Eyes

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The Sky's Eyes is a remote sensing machine that tracks animal populations and pollinator habitats to analyze change-over-time using detectors inspired by bat biosonar and butterfly and bee eyesight. A butterfly-inspired drone, MetaStitch, locates and delivers basic emergency medical treatment to wounded soldiers in combat zones. Butterfabric, is a water resistant textile based on the hydrophobic properties of butterfly wings and beeswax, used to make waterproof blankets to help the homeless and victims of natural disasters stay warm and dry.

Those are three of the futuristic solutions for living in balance with nature and protecting the diversity in and of our ecosystems that New Mexico youths dreamt up for STEMarts Lab's BioMachine Design Challenge.

"Nature has been figuring out and working on problems forever," writes Otto Manley, an eighth-grader at Taos Charter School and designer of The Sky's Eyes, winner of Best-of Show. "We need to start figuring out how to use plants and animals as an answer sheet and use what they know to help us."

The BioMachine Design Challenge asked middle and high schoolers from Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque to design a BioMachine inspired by one or more of the area's six pollinator species--bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, hummingbirds and bats-- to explore threats to biodiversity and the importance of pollinators to community, food security, the health of our planet and the impact their decline is having.

Students were encouraged to let their imaginations fly, but whether embracing what might seem like the wildly impossible or pursuing the innovative and practical, their final designs had to clearly demonstrate that careful consideration had been given to sustainability, ecological impact, benefit to community and planet, and sensitivity to the bio-cultural diversity of the community they will serve.

In addition to Best of Show, winners were chosen in six unique categories from the 197 entries submitted by teachers from eight schools. A prize was also awarded to the teacher who engaged the most students with the best integration of the BioSTEAM curriculum.

The Challenge is part of STEMarts Lab's BioSTEAM mission to inspire youth to imagine a better world by connecting to and designing with nature, enabling them to respond to the complex challenges of the 21st century. The Challenge was tied to a unique theme of The Pollinator Concentrator by BioSTEAM featured artist Ana MacArthur. The art installation at Taos Land Trust uses both technology and simple human tools to reveal the connections between pollinators and local and global ecosystems.

According to Wiktionary, a biomachine is a "biological organism, or group of organisms, that functions like, or is treated as, a machine."

But for the Design Challenge, STEMarts Lab Director Agnes Chavez explains, "We used the term to describe an invention that is inspired by pollinators, biological materials or systems in the design. It could be an object, an interface or anything that performs a task or combination of tasks to solve a problem that helps us live in balance with nature or directly protects nature and biodiversity."

Why pollinator-inspired design? The answer is two-fold.

Firstly, pollinators adaptations for survival have already provided the basis for numerous technological advances, including compound lenses (bees); solar cells and airplane wings (butterflies and moths); building materials (wasps); wind turbines (hummingbirds); Radar and Lidar systems (bats), and drones (all).

Secondly, and more importantly, to raise awareness of the critical role pollinators play in our food supply by facilitating the reproduction of 90 percent of flowering plant species, including most fruit trees. Yet their populations are in decline due to habitat loss and degradation, the introduction of non-native species, pollution - including light pollution and pesticides - and climate change.

All blame for that can be laid at our feet. Our ignorance of what pollinators do is emblematic of our disconnectedness from the natural world - like not knowing that French fries are made from potatoes or that mangrove swamps do more than block our view of the sea.

Students chose one of three topics derived from the Pollinator Concentrator to inform their BioMachine: biodiversity loss and pandemic diseases; biodiversity and food sovereignty; or tech tools and biodiversity. And in the designing process they were to ask themselves these questions: How can I use existing and future technologies in a way that is in balance with nature and protects biodiversity? What are the ecological impacts of the materials I have chosen? What powers my machine? How does it process waste? How can pollinator adaptations and processes inspire new tools and creative application to real world challenges? In addition to a drawing of the machine, they also had to draft a design statement explaining its purpose.

Teachers were real stars in this project, says Chavez. Despite the challenges of online learning, they were able to build study modules on pollinators and biodiversity loss using the guides and resources made available on the STEMarts BioSTEAM website with a BioMachine design as the final project.

Justine Carryer, a Taos High School math teacher and winner of the Teacher prize, engaged all her students in this activity.

"Amidst a time when students are spending an exponential increase of time indoors and on screens, the BioMachine project was a creative and immersive relief," Carryer says. "Connecting mathematics to design and education to our environment is the best way to cultivate real-world innovation. My students loved learning about the Pollinator Concentrator, a piece that many of them had seen but knew little about. Who even knew that Taos had such diverse pollinator species? And who knew that a 2nd-degree Polynomial could be used to create such a beautiful work of art? The discussions, creativity, and inspiration this project sparked in my math classes help open the doors to the link between STEM and the Arts, and more importantly, education to the world around us."

The Design Challenge was intended to be a one-off event, but participating teachers enjoyed it so much they want to it be held annually, a request STEMarts Lab is happy to oblige.

To see all the winning designs visit stemarts.com/biosteam-design-challenge.

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