Learning by Making
Biological Concrete. Photo by Joanna Aizenberg.
Sometimes the best form of education is synthetic. Reviewing precedents is one thing, but the best way to learn often involves taking a stab at something yourself. I often marveled, for example, at the way my former professor Michael Bell would not only study great architectural plans by the likes of Mies or Le Corbusier, but would actually redraw them many times himself. No doubt he gained more knowledge from this direct, haptic involvement with the works than by merely gazing at books or journals.
Harvard-based materials scientist Joanna Aizenberg is taking a similar approach to learning from nature. Fascinated with the marvels of engineering and beauty found in the delicate microstructures of sea sponges or sea urchins, Aizenberg seeks to gain clues related to how these organisms grow and respond to their local environment. Like Bell, Aizenberg is not content merely analyzing her subject matter visually (in this case, gazing through a microscope)—rather, she has actually assembled a variety of microstructures in an attempt to learn from her subject. Examples include “crystal blooms” comprised by the kind of bottom-up growth found in mollusk shells, “biological concrete” in a micro-grid of spongelike strands, and hydrophilic smart coatings that can change color with humidity. In the process, Aizenberg is not only building new materials, but also learning what makes biological building blocks tick.