Deep observation of the disparate collections housed here — from nearly nano-scale to life-sized objects — provides the opportunity to touch and examine specimens from the natural world, discover the wonder and complexities of design in nature and inform your studio work through the processes, materials and organizing principles found in the living world. Selected specimens may also be borrowed for short periods of time — like checking a book out of the library.

View our growing Digital 3D Specimen Library on Sketchfab.

View our growing online image galleries on Flickr.

Edna W. Lawrence Natural History Collection

In the 1920s and ’30s, RISD faculty member Edna W. Lawrence (a 1920 graduate of the Painting program) would spend summers driving across the country collecting natural specimens for students to work with in her Nature Drawing class. In 1937 she founded the Nature Lab with an original collection of 1,286 objects (including shells, butterflies, minerals, skeletons, seed pods and taxidermy) that grew to more than 25,000 items by the time she retired 38 years later. Today the Natural History Collection includes nearly 80,000 individual specimens. You can interact with part of the collection online via our Virtual 3D Specimen Library.

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Tiny Town

Found in our Microscopy Lab, this is a collection of a few thousand small-scale specimens displayed in 2 x 2’’ clear acrylic boxes. Stereo microscopes offer the opportunity to view, draw, paint and/or digitally capture insects, lichens, corals and myriad other natural wonders magnified between 9x and 185x their actual size.

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Discover hidden geometries in the silica structure of a diatom, marvel at the crochet-like patterns revealed in the cross-section of a plant cell and investigate the surprising architecture of a fungus spore. This eye-opening collection of hundreds of prepared glass slide mounts is best explored using our compound microscopes with a magnification capacity of 40 to 1000x actual size.

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Nearly Nanoville

Our growing library of prepared samples for the scanning electron microscope includes both organic and inorganic materials. Capture micrographs and view unexpected topographies revealed in the surface of poppy seeds, sea urchin tests and amethyst crystals magnified up to 45,000x their actual size.

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Arthur Loeb Design Science Teaching Collection

The pioneering work of Dutch scientist Arthur Loeb (1923–2002), who worked in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, established new ways of envisioning the structure of space at macro and molecular scales. The 3D objects and 2D tessellation prints in the collection he left to RISD illustrate core principles of pattern, symmetry and structure found both in nature and the built environment. This type of visual/spatial thinking is increasingly recognized as fundamental to innovation and scientific creativity, making the Nature Lab a perfect home for Loeb’s teaching collection. This includes the The Symmetry Portfolio (housed at the RISD Fleet Library), 164 geometric silkscreens produced by Loeb and his teaching assistant, artist Holly Alderman, that present all infinite tessellating symmetry systems possible in the plane.

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Reference Library

Not everything you ever wanted to know lives online. Take some time to browse through our ecological design and natural science reference library to discover interesting and useful resources for the inquiry at hand – and to explore and appreciate the beauty of these books and brochures in their own right.

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Live Plants + Animals

The Nature Lab is home to a variety of living plants and animals that includes small mammals, reptiles, and fishes, as well as arthropods, mollusks, jellyfishes and other invertebrates. Marine aquaria hold seasonal and permanent residents collected from Narragansett Bay. These organisms provide insight into biology, locomotion and behavior in ways that non-living specimens cannot and further represent the amazingly diverse strategies for survival found among individual species.

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Biomaterials Collection

The Nature Lab's approach to material innovation is rooted not only in sustainability, but in creating materials embedded in biological systems, through both natural metabolisms and created metabolisms.

In natural metabolisms, sometimes referred to a g-i-y, or grow-it yourself, organisms make our materials, as is the case with kombucha leather or mushroom foams from introduced feedstocks. Created metabolisms use biologically derived ingredients to fabricate materials with lab equipment, such as starch-, gelatin- or agar- based bioplastics. Some example processes can be viewed in the RISD Nature Lab Bioplastic Guidebook.

Like materials in nature, some are extremely ephemeral, like a flower petal, some can last a very long time indeed, like wood. All are ultimately biodegradeable. Samples of these and other bio-materials can be accessed in person upon request from the Nature Lab's biomaterials library.

For more information, please check out our Biodesign Makerspace website or contact Jen Bissonnette at

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The Nature Lab offers a range of specialized tools and equipment that support visual inquiry into biological and natural sciences.

Learn more about our equipment

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The RISD Nature Lab is an EPSCoR|C-AIM Core Research Facility supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221 and EAGER Grant Award #1723559. ​​​Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site are those of the Nature Lab and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.​

© 2021 Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design