Special Topics Studio at the Nature Lab | The Biodesign Challenge

This fall the Nature Lab is hosting a Special Topics Studio on Biodesign in the new Biodesign Makerspace. Taught by science and design instructors Jen Bissonnette (Nature Lab Biological Programs Designer) and Peter Yeadon (Professor and Department Head of Industrial Design), the course is geared around creating work to submit to the Biodesign Challenge, an annual design competition held in New York City. In June of 2020, student teams from around the globe will present in front of more than 400 people at Parsons School of Design and the Museum of Modern Art, including representatives from industry, academia, art and design.

Fourteen Industrial Design students from both the undergraduate and graduate programs are working to utilize biology and living organisms as an integral part of design that addresses the broad content areas of materials or water. Part of the design prompt for each of these topics is to create pieces that work with nature, incorporating not only sustainability but a deeper connection between sources, processes, and outcomes that help to sustain life. “We began the semester creating biomaterials; combining feedstocks like starch and agar that are created by organisms, but also cultivating live organisms to have them create the material we could then work with,” said Bissonnette. “It’s not just designing with biology, it’s designing for biology, where students strive to build into their work what other creatures need to survive and thrive.”

Being able to look under compound microscopes at the live bacteria and yeast that were being cultured to make a cellulosic, leather-like material gave a new perspective on material manufacture and helped illustrate a concept of making that intrinsically includes other organisms. Coursework has ranged from the basic chemistry involved in biodegradability to understanding what it means to both design with the ecosystem, and to design like an ecosystem, drawing from the fields of green chemistry, biomimicry, and regenerative design. “There’s been a lot of demand from students for a biodesign course like this,” says Yeadon, "and it helps RISD pursue its Strategic Plan, as we are directly engaging new ways of making and issues related to sustainability.”

Projects at mid-semester range from innovating living machines that are designed to use bacteria and plants as a means of wastewater treatment, to addressing climate change through algae cultivation systems that sequester carbon. Students will work as teams for the remainder of the semester, and the most promising design will be refined over the spring semester to get ready for the Biodesign Challenge in June. Their submission will include not only renderings and prototypes for a finished biodesign innovation, but a website and video detailing their process and outcomes. “It’s an exciting opportunity for RISD students to bring design and biology together to address real world problems,” said Bissonnette. “It affords them the opportunity to win a prestigious award, yes, but more importantly to learn to work with the biodesign concepts that are necessary if we are going to create a future that is supportive of life on this planet.”

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