From Woodpeckers to Water: Designing Models to Ease Freshwater Access Crisis

What You Need


  • 3-ring lab binder/notebook (1 per student + 1 for classroom)
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Graph paper
  • Sticky notes
  • Consumer-grade 3D printer, or access to FabLab (optional)
From Woodpeckers to Water: Designing Models to Ease Freshwater Access Crisis Woodpecker. Photo Credit: by Charles de Mille-Isles (CC BY 2.0) via flickr.


To develop engineering solutions for solving the problem of access to freshwater sources in developing countries by examining case studies of design and exploring models.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that make up the Inventing Green project, a collection of resources that engage 6-12 students with invention education. Invention education encompasses the idea that learning is powered by hands-on experiences that allow students to turn ideas into inventions with impact. You can learn more about invention education by reading the Invention Education Educator Toolkit.

This lesson is the second of a series of three lessons that focuses on the issue of the lack of access to safe drinking water in many parts of the world. In the first lesson, Rewriting the World Water Script, students focused their research on understanding the crisis of access to freshwater that is safe to drink in tropical and near-tropical societies and its impacts on people’s daily lives.

In the third lesson in the series, Design Challenge, students build and evaluate prototypes for water transport in a design challenge using a number of evaluation criteria.

In this second lesson, students observe, learn, and prepare to apply the knowledge of how engineering problem-solving can start from models. The engineering problem-solving process is a highly iterative, multi-dimensional creative discipline. It requires the ability to build an evidence-based scientific case for technological solutions that are appropriate to the cultural context—in particular, to the social and economic forces that shape, empower, or constrain a given culture.

Students will learn engineering problem-solving in a multimedia process that involves different approaches. The lesson begins with inspiration: watching a video about a materials scientist solving the problem of why woodpeckers don’t get headaches or brain injuries. Next, students investigate case studies of nature inspiring solutions to a variety of problems: 

  • Caddisfly cases solve the problem of protection for the soft-bodied animals that construct them, inspiring the next generation of medical adhesives. 
  • Bromeliad leaf bases collect and store water for the plant, offering inspiration to engineers looking for new ways to collect rainwater runoff. 
  • Finally, students will see a human design inspired by nature: the NASA Mars rover planetary transport vehicle is inspired by tumbleweed movement.

Modeling is an effective prolem-solving strategy because models are small-scale, simplified platforms to make large problems understandable, manageable, and easier to explore—which help scientists envision solutions to the freshwater access problem. Models let scientists “see” and interact with the problem in many—and often unusual—ways so that iterative, rapid-prototyping leads to innovative draft solutions that can be developed, explored, tested, revised, assessed, and eventually built out if a design meets all the specifications that suit it to solving the problem in a cultural context.

Students will explore multiple types of models—from hand sketching to computational 3-D prototypes of physical objects. The goal is to identify promising novel geometric shapes/systems for storing and transporting water in a social and economic context of poverty and an underdeveloped water infrastructure.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Next Generation Science Standards:

Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science

  • HS-ETS1-1 Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.
  • HS-ETS1-2 Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
  • HS-ETS1-3 Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
  • HS-ETS1-4 Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.

Natural Resources

  • HS-ESS3-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

Planning Ahead

Time: This lesson requires five one-hour class periods and four one-hour homework assignments.

Structure: The nine hours that students spend on this content could be spread over one week or one month—or longer, if a quarter or semester calendar fits the students’ and teaching staff's needs. Or the five classes could be conducted one per day for an entire immersion Water Week to maintain conceptual coherency. It could also be used in a weekend intensive camp format.

A partnership with a college or maker space/FabLab could naturally organize the time into a three-hour field trip or open lab. Keep the option open for extra credit hours because this lesson has the potential to go extremely deep, and highly engaged students likely will want to—and should. Starting a school club afterschool might be an option to accommodate them.

Teacher Role: For information about how this lesson is structured, please see the From Woodpeckers to Water teacher sheet. You also can learn more about invention education and/or finding mentors to help you and your students by reading the Invention Education Educator Toolkit. We also suggest that you provide your students with the Invention Education Toolkit student sheet so they can get background information on invention education.

Student Leadership: This lesson requires each student to take turns as needed to perform leadership, administrative, and operational roles in the project by assuming and inventing titles as needed. Eventually, these roles replace most of your involvement because students respond to the needs of the project and generate titles themselves to become a self-organizing and assembling unit. For ease of the narrative, titles in this lesson include inquiry prompter (who leads the class discussion, if needed); conference moderator (who runs the mock case study conference); and class archivist (who records official class notes).

Materials: Students should have a personal 3-ring binder/notebook in which to store their own materials, but you'll also want a separate one to keep in the classroom. This will serve as a class day-by-day Discovery Diary and includes graph paper, notebook sheets, and sticky notes. NOTE: The class Discovery Diary is the legacy process document from which students can report on and reconstruct this effort, present project recaps, and use to improve subsequent efforts. It should be full of notes and sticky notes that could be redacted later. 

Technology: Students will need to set up free accounts on Curiosity Machine (Day 2) and Tinkercad (Day 3).


Day 1: 1 hour
As a class, begin this lesson by looking at the intersection of creative engineering (often inspired by nature) and modeling in the early part of the design process. For an in depth example, watch the Built to Peck: How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury video with MIT materials scientist Lorna Gibson. Be sure you watch all eight parts together, a total of about 27 minutes.

As students watch the video, they should answer the questions on their From Woodpeckers to Water student sheet. After the video, discuss the questions through class discussion led by a student leader prompting classmates when needed (Inquiry Prompter):

  • What is the research question under study?
    • (How do woodpeckers avoid brain injury when they peck?)
  • Why was this question interesting to a materials scientist?
    • (This question was interesting to the materials scientist because she was interested in the mechanics of how they peck and if that helped the birds avoid brain injury.)
  • What aspects of her discovery process surprised—and excited you?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)
  • Cite several improbable “instruments of discovery” this case surfaces, and explain how they advanced understanding. For example, how does a typewriter figure into this story?
    • (Cameras, specimens of woodpeckers, woodpecker skulls, crash test dummies, high-speed video, typewriter, etc. Explanations for how they advanced understanding may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)
  • How can you apply Dr. Gibson’s line of inquiry/style of thinking to your own discovery toolkit?
    • (Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

Now move from woodpeckers to water by reviewing and discussing the experiences and insights about the nature, scope, and causes of the freshwater access problem from the first lesson in this series. As a group, students should review and discuss the Google Doc they compiled that contain Internet resources on the crisis. They should add to it, focusing on citing aspects of the water crisis that make it both a scientific and a world societal problem. Students may also make notes about the discussion-review from the first lesson in their lab notebook. Comments should include details such as variables/realities/resources/constraints to consider when modeling a possible solution.

Day 1 Homework
Step 1. Students should use their From Woodpeckers to Water student esheet to go to What is Engineering Problem Solving? They should study the steps involved in the engineering problem-solving cycle graphic.

Step 2. Inspired by the problem-solving case study from nature the woodpecker provides, students should use their student esheet to read/or watch these online resources:

One natural design is for protection: caddisfly cases:

This natural design is for water storage: tank bromeliads:

This natural design inspired NASA’s Mars rover planetary transport vehicle

Or, students can conduct research on the Web to find their own case study from nature to engineering problems. For example, stories like this are common: Mother Nature as Engineer: 9 Design Tricks Borrowed from Biology.

Step 3. Based on their studies in Step 2, students should create a slide show or Power Point guided by the Case Study Homework student sheet, highlighting and explaining inventive designs engineers have found in nature.

Step 4. Students should secure the student activity sheet in their personal 3-ring lab binder.


Day 2: Mock Case Study Conference and Research on Rapid Prototyping
In this part of the lesson, students will focus on understanding the role that models and dynamic modeling processes such as virtual prototyping and rapid prototyping play in helping identify and develop new solutions to scientific and engineering problems. To do this, they should practice modeling across a continuum of technological sophistication, from hand sketching to virtual prep with CAD for 3D printing, if it is available onsite or as a field trip to a maker space or FabLab.

Mock Case Study Conference: 30-60 minutes
Each student should present to the class the slide show or Power Point that they prepared as homework the night before, as if they are presenting at a scientific conference on a strict time schedule. Allow four minutes per student to deliver their five-slide presentation.

Before the presentations begin, choose a student to serve as Conference Moderator. This student will ask each class member to write one question about the case study on a sheet of paper, collect the papers, and read the questions to the presenter for answers/elaborations. This may lead to open discussion as well. The Conference Moderator then thanks the presenters, sums up key observations, and closes the conference.

The Class Archivist opens a class Google Docs, Dropbox, or Moodle space that serves as a Creativity Commons where students each file a copy of their slideshows and other materials for cross-consulting that will serve as shared resources as the class progresses. The Class Archivist also includes the link to the Creativity Commons in the Discovery Diary.

OPTIONAL (If presentations do not fill up one hour)
Speed Sketching: 15-minute Visualizing Solutions
In this quick, rough sketch exercise, students use the Speed Sketching student sheet to create sketch responses to at least three ideas from the case studies presentations. Sketches can be annotated with physics or textual explanations of the problem and possible solutions, as needed. The point is that even in the computer age, brainstorming still responds well to sketching by pencil, jotting down ideas, and back-of-the-napkin approaches.

Sketch Swap: 10-minute Collaboration
Each student quickly presents and explains his or her sketches, the thinking behind it, what they were trying for, what worked, and what didn’t. Each asks for help in improving parts of it, and learns to accept help as a non-judgmental expression of assistance in reaching a shared goal, not a statement of personal deficit.

Day 2 Homework: Rapid Prototyping Research and Practice
Students should use the student esheet to access videos that introduce the concept of rapid prototyping. Working alone or in pairs outside of the school day, students should go to Curiosity Machine, create an account, and follow its lab instructions to use pipe cleaners to make tetrahedra as big as a student to explore the concept of simple modeling materials shaped by hand. Provide students with pipe cleaners before they leave class so they can use them for this activity.

Day 3 Share and Apply: 15 minutes
Discuss the concept of rapid prototyping and work toward a class definition for it, with the Class Archivist adding entries in the Discovery Diary. The entry should include discussion insights about the class experiences with the rapid prototyping pipe-cleaner tetrahedron homework assignment. Focus on how the pipe-cleaner experiences could be applied to producing solutions to the problem at hand: easing the transport of fresh water.

Tinkercad: Introduction to Virtual Prototyping with CAD: 45 minutes
Each student will need to create a free account on Tinkercad. Using the computer and the student esheet, students will begin to familiarize themselves with how this powerful software tool is used in modeling geometric solids that are useful to 3D printing of rapid prototypes.

Day 3 Classwork/Homework
Students should explore Tinkercad through self-instruction by choosing and completing at least three lessons from the project gallery. They could perhaps start with an introductory project on basic shapes and the Making of Star Wars.

Students should progress at their own pace to more skills by choosing other projects in the gallery and should continue exploring the tool as homework. Perhaps they could introduce themselves to breaking down complex shapes into simpler shapes with a lesson such as Creating A Beaked Whale.

Day 4 Tinker ‘n Tell: 10 minutes
Students should share experiences from learning and exploring Tinkercad. The Class Archivist should recap key points in the class Discovery Diary. Each student fills out the Tinkercad Tips and Tricks student sheet while students are sharing tips.

Collectively, these student sheets archive key concepts, moves, and commands that were most useful to students in mastering Tinkercad as a means of modeling. This is to serve the goal of peer-assisted-learning and become a class-authored Survival Guide to Modeling Rapid Prototyping. This Guide is co-authored by the class. Each student should store a copy in their personal 3-ring binder.

Problem-Solving Matrix: 20 minutes
Students should go to the Problem-Solving Matrix and read how to use a problem-solving matrix to record evaluations. Working collaboratively as a class, students should create their own problem-solving matrix on which to record evaluations and score points for each other's models on Day 5. They should add rows as needed to accommodate all students’ models. The Totals column ranks designs based on how well each meets specifications (Specs). The Class Archivist should include a clean copy of the matrix in the Discovery Diary and, if needed, should provide classmates with copies for Day 5.

Preliminary Designs: 30 minutes
Working in pairs, students create designs for water transport systems, using the knowledge they gained in the first lesson in this series. Each pair sketches out their designs on graph paper and should include design specs, preliminary schematics, and other brainstorming attributes they believe are important for developing their model to help transport water. Explain to the students they will build a physical prototype or model of their design during an upcoming design challenge and demonstrate how it's able to transport water from one point to another. Students may use a variety of techniques and materials to build their prototypes, ranging from a 3D printer to dowels to foam core board. This information prepares students for Day 4 homework.

Day 4 Homework
On Tinkercad, each partner pair—using the preliminary design sketched out earlier in the day—creates a final design. They should print a copy to bring to class. This will be evaluated on Day 5 to prepare it for the design challenge in the third lesson in the series.

DAY 5 Mind Meld: 10 minutes
Each partner pair meets to present their Tinkercad water transport model design to one another. She/he asks for constructive evaluation—known as a critique—from their partner.

Speed Design Down: 50 minutes
All partner pairs’ conceptual models will compete in the “design down” as a constructive, iterative competition to rapid improvement of their design for the design challenge.

Round 1: In 1–2 minute presentations, each pair presents their printed Tinkercad conceptual model to the class. Their classmates should log observations in a copy of the problem-solving matrix developed on Day 4, which can be stored in the class Design Diary for later perusal.

Reflect and Revise. Students should look over feedback on their designs on each other's problem-solving matrix sheets. They should then take five minutes to think about what they’ve seen and how it pertains to their models—and what they might change and what they might keep on their model.

Round 2: Student pairs present again, this time offering one concrete step they will take to prepare for the design challenge as a result of experiences in Design Down—from their own model or others’.


Working in pairs, each student should draw out their own problem-solving cycle like the one they saw on the What is Engineering Problem Solving? page. They should use this model to demonstrate their process for their own designs. The goal is to fill in the blanks with the design and problem-solving process steps the student followed over the course of the first two lessons in this series—innovating by adding, deleting, or modifying steps as needed. Students should work to integrate and review the basic approach of engineering problem solving.

As a class, students add more written and illustrated entries to the Class Survival Guide to Modeling through Rapid Prototyping in the Discovery Diary three-ring binder. These pages describe the three best-practice steps to take when designing and modeling a novel geometric shape and novel materials that could be used to hold and transport water.


You should follow this lesson with the next lesson in the freshwater access series: Design Challenge.

Individually or as a group, students could expand their sense of being a team committed to innovation, design, and rapid prototyping modeling by watching Sketches of Frank Gehry, America’s most famous modern architect, in which he works with paper models.

They then could use A Case for Crankiness student sheet to discuss the design critique Gehry makes about his own paper model. 

Funder Info
The Lemelson Foundation
Based in Portland, The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives. Inspired by the belief that invention can solve many of the biggest economic and social challenges of our time, the Foundation helps the next generation of inventors and invention-based businesses to flourish. The Lemelson Foundation was established in the early 1990s by prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. To date the Foundation has made grants totaling over $200 million in support of its mission. For more information, visit http://lemelson.org.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards

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