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Amherst Hitchcock Center learns from nature

n.natureConducted by naturalist and educator Ted Watt, as well as Biomimicry Guild biologist Tim McGee, the Hitchcock Center of Amherst will host a nature hike on Saturday, Oct. 17, exploring the process of Biomimicry.

For those in attendance, according to the Hitchcock Center’s website, Watt and McGee will lead them on a natural history hike of Mount Toby with a specific look at the adaptations and design of plants and ecosystems.

“Biomimicry describes the process by which humans appropriate adaptations from the natural world to our advantage, to accomplish specific tasks,” Watt said.

Biomimicry uses the design of nature to inform the designs of human technology. Being that this field is relatively new to science it does not appear in The American Heritage College Dictionary which was printed in 2007.

“Tim is full of fascinating examples [of biomimicry],”Watt said. “One that I remember is the self cleaning skins of fish with their scales. Dirt particles do not adhere. So designing industrial membranes to mimic fish scales enables the surfaces to remain clean.”

As a naturalist, Watt said that he is intrigued by the complexities inherent in natural systems, as well as the interactions between species in nature.

Watt and McGee seek to educate the public in the value of the study of nature.

“The goal is to introduce people to our native ecosystem with an eye for function,”  McGee said.

He added, “[The hike will] hopefully share some inspiring stories along the way of how others have used seeing function in nature for inspiring innovative and sustainable technologies.”

The idea for the Biomimicry Walk came from the previously held, “Fern Hike” which was also attended by both Watt and McGee.

“It was a beautiful hike through the old woods, and everyone had a great time learning more about our local ferns.” McGee said about the hike. “I couldn’t help myself as a biomimicry professional, I see function, and possibilities everywhere- so I shared a story about one of the ferns we saw growing on top of a rocky outcropping.”

McGee added, “The fern has access to very little soil, and limited access to water, and it regularly is able to withstand dehydration. Ted told the group that the fern is also related to the resurrection fern…this triggered for me a story about the sugar molecule trehalose, that this fern likely uses… the molecule trehalose has been used to stabilize vaccine proteins outside for refrigeration. This means that a vaccine doesn’t need to be kept cold, and can be transported long distances. This greatly saves on energy costs, as well as helping deliver vaccinations to a much broader audience without refrigeration. All from studying a fern in our own backyard.”

McGee and Watt both said that they will seek to recreate this experience of discovery.

“This walk will be an exercise in keeping our eyes and mind open as we look  to nature as a model, mentor and as a measure for our own technologies,” said McGee. “We don’t know what we will find on this trip, but I’m excited about the adventure.”

McGee is a member of the Biomimicry Guild, which, according to the Guild’s website, uses deep knowledge of biological adaptations to help designers, engineers, architects and business leaders solve, design and engineer challenges for sustainable use.

The Hitchcock Center is scheduled to hold additional workshops and lectures involving nature throughout the year.

As stated on their website, the mission of the Hitchcock Center is as follows.

“The Hitchcock Center for the Environment’s mission is to foster a greater awareness and understanding of our natural world and to develop environmentally literate citizens.  We offer natural history programs for people of all ages and backgrounds. We are committed to excellence in science education and work extensively in school systems throughout western Massachusetts training educators to be more effective science teachers.”

In addition to the nature hike,  the Center will be holding bird watching expeditions, tutorials on how to use simple tools like the compass to navigate through the woods and more hikes throughout the rest of the year.

The event will begin 10am Saturday morning and will run until 1pm at Mount Toby in Sunderland, Massachusetts and is open to the public. Mount Toby is located about 10 miles north of The University of Massachusetts and is also home to 755 acres used by the UMass Department of Natural Resources Conservation as a demonstration forest.

Bobby Hitt can be reached at rhitt@student.umass.edu

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