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Picture of Whirly Birds - a Study in Hydrodynamics and Biomimetics

I know. It's a mouthful, isn't it? But this is a great project.
I've been doing it for a long time, and every time, the students love it, whether they are in 2nd grade or 6th grade.

An important disclaimer first. I got this project idea from science buddies.

Please check out It's a great place for project ideas.

Before I start the project, I discussed the concept of biomimicry. Simply, it means that engineers are trying to use what we find in nature to improve functions of man-made objects. A splendid example is velcro. It was invented by a man who went for a walk with his dog and came home with a lot of hooked burs from the local hills on his socks and his dog. He studied the burs and invented velcro. Imagine that!

Cat's Paws and Catapults by Steven Vogel has a book full of Biomimetics examples. You might want to check it out.

Step 1: What Is Biomimetics?

Picture of What Is Biomimetics?

Studying and Learning from Nature

One of the best examples of Biomimetics is velcro. A Swiss engineer took his dog for a walk and found these things clinging to his dog's belly and legs. It took a long time for him to take these things off, and one day, he looked closely at the things he was taking off his dog. He found these tiny hooks at the end of the things that were clinging to the stomach and eventually invented velcro. Can you believe it? used to have a wonderful lesson associated with this, but it's no longer available (at least I couldn't find it). So, I'll have to do my best to give you a short summary.

The bumps on humpback whales' fins called tubercles (scalloped pattern)

help the whales swim through the water easily.

The spikes on sharks' skin called denticles (saw-tooth pattern)

help the sharks slice through the water effortlessly.

Scientists and engineers are working to incorporate these design elements to planes and ships, among other things. They believe that if we could put a thin skin of these patterns on our planes, it might cut our travel time over 50%!

Imagine that!

For this project, you need to cut out the three separate patterns, test them and figure out which pattern helps the whirly-bird slice through the air best.

When I do this project in class, I'm the client and the students are aerospace engineers who are competing in teams to win a chance to build a revolutionary new aircraft. They must test the three patterns and make recommendations according to their flight data (how long the various whirly-birds took to reach the ground).