Michael Helms

Personal Web Page: www.cc.gatech.edu/~mhelms3

My research in biologically inspired design (BID), also called biomemetics, biomimicry, or bionics, focuses on the cognitive processes of design, where design relies on drawing analogies to nature. In the context of an undergraduate class on BID, I notice that problem formulation in an open and innovative design context is difficult, dynamic, and influenced by the biological analogies available to designers. Thus a biological analogy may serve to not only help generate solutions to problems, but also to understand and frame the problem itself. I call the process whereby a biological system influences problem formulation Analogical Problem Evolution (APE).

A Content Account of BID

In order to study this phenomenon more closely, I developed a system for representing problem formulations, called Structured Representations for Biologically Inspired Design (SR.BID). This system of representation (a content account), provides a means for analyzing designer problem formulations over time.

Pedagogical Tools for Supporting BID

Using SR.BID as a platform, I developed three pedagogical support tools for BID. The first is to use SR.BID directly to help students define and structure their knowledge about biological systems. SR.BID provides students with a focus for framing their understanding and communication about biological systems. The second tool is the four-box method of problem specification, which breaks a problem into a sub-set of SR.BID: Operational Environment, Function, Performance Criteria,and Specifications/Constraints. Students use the framework to define design problems. The third tool, called the T-chart extends the previous two for use in analogical evaluation/comparison. The T-chart assumes that both biological systems and problems can be defined in terms of the four-box method, which can then be compared side-by-side. This feature-level comparison provides at least an initial set of criteria against which one or more analogical sources can be validated against a design problem.

Technology for Supporting BID

In addition to cognitive theories, I design interactive technology platforms to support generation of new ideas, both problem and solution ideas, by analogical retrieval and mapping of biological designs. the first system I worked on was the Design by Analogy to Nature Engine, or DANE. DANE enabled the representation of Structure-Behavior-Function (SBF) models of biological systems. These representations are shown to enable deeper understanding of complex and abstract causal processes of biology. SBF models are also shown to enable some automated design tasks.

The second system I worked on uses the SR.BID to help students formulate problems and analyze analogies. This system is simply known as the SR.BID Web Application. This application provides the capacity to represent problems and systems using the four-box method, capabilities already established in the classroom context. Using an common electronic repository further enables students to be able to retrieve and compare both systems and problems using the four-box criteria. Thus, the SR.BID Web Application allows for search, retrieval and evaluation of analogies both between problems and solutions, and between problems and similar problems.

I also work closely with and am occasionally supported by the Center for Biologically Inspired Design.