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Teaching sustainability through materials: bridging circular materials and bio-design for new design curricula


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This work presents the educational approach and the outcomes of a course aimed at teaching sustainability through the lenses of materials. The last decade has been crucial to finally reach a mature state of awareness of how the material side of our productions and its poor management is at the base of many environmental problems. Such awareness pushed the emergence of new materials, motivated by the search for more sustainable alternatives and a re-evaluation of biological processes capable of creating materials and artifacts through bio-based and bio-fabrication techniques. The clear environmental crises also pushed the design field to pay more attention to materials; but to date, for designers, understanding the sustainability of materials and their real impact on life cycle products is still not trivial; moreover, new biotechnologies are opening up the possibility for designers to experiment with organic sources and living materials. The academic course described in this study focuses on a didactic method based on a practice-based approach. The students were guided to learn the key aspects that can define a material in a sustainable context, improving their material development knowledge and lab working skills. A learning-by-doing path is developed in three workshops tackling material sustainability with increasing difficulty and understanding. The learning journey starts with an analysis of local wastes for the development of new DIY circular materials. The second step introduces the living variable of biofabricated materials, amplifying the complexity of the project and adapting to nature’s time scale. The last step requires a higher understanding of the synergistic mechanisms between biotic and abiotic agents by exploring bioreceptive materials. These three material approaches have been selected for the design methodologies and sustainability principles they have in common. Using classroom observations and a survey, the authors examined student experiences and perceptions of the proposed syllabus in order to understand its efficacy in terms of students’ material and sustainability awareness. This educational path has proved to deeply connect the students with materials’ life cycles and local and natural resources, gaining a deeper understanding of regional environmental issues potentially having a material design solution.
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for Sustainability
approaching SDG 4
and target 4.7
Ana Elena Builes Vélez
Natalia Builes Escobar
© Varios Autores
© Editorial Universidad Ponticia Bolivariana
Vigilada Mineducación
Education for Sustainability approaching SDG 4 and target 4.7
ISBN: 978-628-500-077-5
Primera edición, 2022
Escuela de Arquitectura y diseño
Facultad de Arquitectura
CIDI. Grupo: GAUP. Proyecto: Educación para la sostenibilidad en las disciplinas creativas.
Radicado: 718C-02/22-61.
Gran Canciller upb y Arzobispo de Medellín: Mons. Ricardo Tobón Restrepo
Rector General: Pbro. Julio Jairo Ceballos Sepúlveda
Vicerrector Académico: Álvaro Gómez Fernández
Decana de la Escuela de Arquitectura y Diseño: Beatriz Elena Rave
Gestora Editorial: Natalia Builes - Ana Elena Builes Vélez
Coordinadora (e) Editorial: Maricela Gómez Vargas
Coordinación de Producción: Ana Milena Gómez Correa
Diagramación: Transparencia duo
Corrección de Estilo: ProWrittingAid - Ana Elena Builes Vélez
Imagen portada: Ana Elena Builes Vélez
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Editorial Universidad Ponticia Bolivariana, 2022
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Builes Vélez, Ana Elena, compilador
Education for Sustainability approaching SDG 4 and target 4.7/ Ana Elena
Builes Vélez y otros veintiocho -- 1 edición– Medellín: UPB, 2022 -- 231
ISBN: 978-628-500-077-5 (versión digital)
1. Sostenibilidad 2. Medellín 3. Diseño de producto
CO-MdUPB / spa / RDA / SCDD 21 /
Teaching sustainability through
materials: bridging circular materials
and bio-design for new design curricula
Barbara Pollini
Design Department. Politecnico di Milano. ITA.
Jared Jimenez
Design Department of (HDU–Habitat and Urban Development Design).
This work presents the pedagogical approach and the outcomes of a
course aimed at teaching sustainability through the lenses of materials.
The last decade has been crucial to finally reach a mature state of
awareness of how the material side of our productions and its poor
management is at the base of many environmental problems. Such
awareness pushed the emergence of new materials, motivated by the
search for more sustainable alternatives and a re-evaluation of biological
processes capable of creating materials and artifacts through bio-based
and bio-fabrication techniques. The clear environmental crises also
pushed the design field to pay more attention to materials; but to date,
for designers, understanding the sustainability of materials and their
real impact on life cycle products is still not trivial; new biotechnologies
are opening up the possibility for designers to experiment with organic
sources and living materials. The academic course described in this study
focuses on a didactic method based on a practice-based approach; the
students are guided to learn the key aspects that can define a material in
a sustainable context, improving their material development knowledge
and lab working skills. A learning-by-doing path is developed in three
workshops tackling material sustainability with an increasing difficulty
and understanding. The learning journey starts with an analysis of local
wastes for the development of new DIY circular materials. The second
step introduces the living variable of bio-fabricated materials, amplifying
the complexity of the project and adapting to nature’s time scale. The
last step requires a higher understanding of the synergistic mechanisms
between biotic and abiotic agents in an ecosystem by exploring bio-
receptive materials. These three material approaches have been
selected for the design methodologies and sustainability principles they
have in common. Using classroom observations and a survey, the authors
examined student experiences and perceptions of the proposed syllabus
in order to understand its efficacy in terms of the last student’s material
and sustainability awareness. This educational path has proved to deeply
connect the students with materials’ life cycles and local and natural
resources, gaining a deeper understanding of regional environmental
issues potentially having a material design solution.
Keywords: Sustainable materials, DIY-Materials, bio-fabrication, bio-
receptivity, new design curricula.
The central role of materials
in sustainable design
In the last decade, there has been growing attention to the material
aspect of our lifestyles and our economies, and this was also reflected
in the design field with increased attention to materials. While recent
studies pointed out the inadequacy of the management, we have of the
planet’s resources (Circularity Gap Report, 2021), and how our production
methods are still projected towards linear growth models on a finite
planet (Elhacham et al., 2020); on the other side, the paradigm of circular
economy (CE) has highlighted the central role materials play in an
ecological transition (Ashby, 2021). The constantly developing discipline
of eco-design (Ceschin & Gaziulusoy, 2016) has often highlighted the
central role of materials (Michael F., 2016; Vezzoli, 2013); however,
materials’ environmental assessment and selection is not a trivial activity
for designers, still lacking the right tools to manage material awareness
within the project life cycle (Pollini & Rognoli, 2021a). The need for
reasoning about sustainability from a material perspective seems urgent
and effective at the same time. Materials are in the spotlight in the design
practice: they are questioned, assessed for their sustainability, substituted
with less impacting solutions, they even become more and more the
subject of the design practice itself, for example, through experimental
and explorative activities aimed at finding new material solutions with
a DIY-Materials approach (Ayala-Garcia & Rognoli, 2017; Rognoli et al.,
2015). The hands-on experimentation characterizing this approach for
the development of new materials enact tinkering activity, a recognized
educational practice grounding on experiential learning, from Bauhaus’s
didactic notion of learning by doing (Wick, K., 2000), to the more recent
phenomena of DIY-Materials (Parisi et al., 2017). In the last years, the will
to experiment with materials has been both a bottom-up phenomenon
and an educational approach (Pollini & Maccagnan, 2017); designers
have felt the need to criticize the choices of conventional materials for
products, willing to better understand the production processes behind
them and, as a counterpart, also redesigning them, creating new material
possibilities, to open up future scenarios of more circular productions.
This approach has been recognized as fundamental in material education
since it allows to develop solutions at an intuitive level (Ziyu Zhou,
2022); through practical work with materials and tinkering, students can
achieve what is called tacit knowledge, essential for design skills and to
collaborate in multidisciplinary environments (Rust, 2004).
New sustainable opportunities arise for designers willing to
experiment with materials, given by the recent democratization of
science, in particular in biotechnologies. A DIY approach (and open-
source philosophy) also characterizes the origin of Biodesign, a nascent
hybrid discipline described for the first time in the homonymous book by
Myers in 2012 as an “approach to design that draws on biological tenets
and even incorporates the use of living materials into structures, objects,
and tools” (Myers, 2012). In this design approach, materials gain a
predominant role, being made of, with, or from living organisms (Ginsberg
& Chieza, 2018), such as mycelium, bacteria, or algae, to name the most
experienced ones in the bio-design field. Such bio-fabricated materials
(Lee et al., 2020) are often claimed to be sustainable, stimulating a very
interested audience (including both design academies and the market),
thanks to the sustainable features associated with biological origin and
bio-fabrication techniques (Camere & Karana, 2018; Esat & Ahmed-
Kristensen, 2018).
Sustainability is, in fact, one of the primary triggers bringing designers
closer to this discipline (Collet Carol, 2013; Ginsberg & Chieza, 2018;
Oxman, 2010). The many sustainable features of biomaterials justify this
aspect (e.g., fast renewability, processes that require little energy, water,
and resources, life-friendly chemistry), although the life cycle assessment
data for bio-fabricated materials are still few, given that many of them
are still on a research stage and under development. However, bio-
fabricated materials show potential also from a circular economy and
bioeconomy perspective, not only for their organic origin but also because
some of these organisms can be fed on agricultural waste, as showed
both by mycelium-based materials (Meyer et al., 2020), and bacterial
cellulose (Provin et al., 2021; Puspitasari et al., 2021) productions. In
bio-design, materials that grow while alive provide the designer with
unusual outcomes; the design process is highly influenced by the role
and behaviour of the organism, affecting the tinkering activity, which
became here bio-tinkering, taking the meaning of tinkering with materials
of biological origin (Rognoli et al., 2021). Of course, the livingness affects
this practice by adding non-linear outcomes (Figueroa & Carolina, 2018).
Still, it also brings the abilities of life: consciousness, sensory abilities,
and responses to external stimuli, adaptability, growth, change. All
these aspects are peculiar to the living organisms, which become potent
agencies affecting the design process in terms of its performance and
aesthetic. Livingness (Elvin Karana et al., 2020) is not the only quality to
be considered in the design process. From a bio-design perspective, inert
materials support the living; therefore, the inert counterpart needs to be
designed for the organism’s requirements and the environment in which
it is located. The importance of inert materials in bio-design have been
highlighted in a recent study that expanded the definition of bio receptive
design, suggesting its involvement “every time a material/artifact is
intentionally designed to be colonized by life forms” (Pollini & Rognoli,
2021). Some material features, such as colours, porosity, composition
and shape, can welcome living organisms, like lichen and mosses,
algae, insects or mussels. These inert/alive assemblages can remediate
polluted environments, increase biodiversity in depleted zones, or boost
cities’ biophilia (Söderlund, 2019). Bioreceptive materials can serve as a
nursery for organisms able to positively interact with their environment;
for example, MARS1, a 3d printed ceramic modular structure, has been
1 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
colonized by corals to restore damaged reefs; another example is
H.O.R.T.U.S2, designed by EcoLogic Studio and claimed to be the first
3D printed bioreactor, hosting algae and cyanobacteria for interiors
air purification. Even though this approach is still a niche in design, the
growing interest in living materials in the biodesign field makes the design
of inert materials’ bio-receptivity an essential counterpart to sustain life
forms, while giving the designer the possibility to design for small scale
living ecosystems, assemblages of inert and alive materials.
How to learn sustainability principles through
materials hands-on experimentation
The three emerging material trends discussed so far can also be evidence
that such materials experiments have pushed designers towards greater
environmental awareness. The development of DIY-Materials forces
designers to focus on sources, materials flow, and the expressive-
sensorial potentials (Ayala-Garcia & Rognoli, 2017) of new materials
derived from waste, supporting their applications in design. Designers,
tinkering and creating new materials fully understand their life cycle,
the input and output of the manufacturing processes, and their end-
of-life potential. Besides this, an approach such as the Material Driven
Design method (MDD), developed to facilitate designing for material
experiences, is often associated to the DIY-Materials, since it helps to
unveil the material’s features to enable envisioning accordingly its
applications (Karana et al., 2015). This approach brings a transition from
a form-focused to a material-focused design process, which can help
the designers make sustainably informed decisions in terms of material
processing, finishing, and application; to where it is possible to talk about
MDD for sustainability (Bak-Andersen, 2018). MDD can also apply to
2 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
bio-fabricated materials (Parisi et al., 2016; Zhou et al., 2020); here the
designer experience a closer collaboration with living and responsive
organisms, capable of growing and giving life to renewable, biocompatible
and circular materials and objects. With bio-receptive materials, providing
a solid perception of the complexity of ecosystems and places, their
design implies a deep understanding of the balance between different
agents inhabiting a shared space. The authors, confident that these design
approaches needs to be experienced hands-on to activate the intuitive
and tacit knowledge leading to a deeper understanding of materials’
environmental potentialities and implications, are presenting here the
structure and the results of an elective course based on the hypothesis
that sustainability principles can be taught through the lenses of
materials. By experimenting with local and wasted sources, the students
can map new local possibilities for circular materials by practically
experiencing their life cycles as they try to create them. Dealing with
and for living organisms (both living materials and bio-receptive ones),
students need to face the dynamic abilities of life, eventually developing
feeling of empathy and care (Camere & Karana, 2018; Keune, 2021); they
can directly observe the growth of the materials, see their responses
and behaviors to the environment they are exposed, learning about the
physical and environmental parameters needed to co-design with the
living. Trying to develop a bioreceptive project, aiming at its restorative
potential, also gives students a sense of the ecosystem’s dynamics and
the relationships between biotic and abiotic in a system. The pedagogical
approach suggested in this work aims to build a deep understanding of
the relations occurring among materials and sustainable design, also
providing practical skills and laboratory literacies to enable students to
work with DIY, bio-fabricated and bioreceptive materials. The results of
the course were analyzed through classroom observations, the analysis
of student’s projects, and a survey, confirming the efficacy of the
proposed model in terms of final student’s awareness and gained skills
on the topics of sustainable design and the development of new circular,
bio-fabricated and bioreceptive materials.
2.2 building new material design curricula
for sustainable development
With a solid practice-based approach, aimed at guiding the students
through three practical activities, the course focused on the possibility of
creating sustainable materials in a crescendo of complexity: starting with
the experimentation of DIY-Materials based on the analysis of local waste
and resources, continuing with the experience of growing living materials
such as bacterial cellulose and mycelium, and concluding a learning-
by-doing path with bioreceptive materials, combining living and inert
materials aimed at encouraging biodiversity, biophilia and bioremediation
The course aims at improving students’ understanding of the dynamic
and innovative dimension of sustainability, by developing sustainability
competencies in terms of materials evaluation, selection and design,
which can meet the education aim of Sustainable Development Goal 4
(SDG 4); In particular, SDG Target 4.7 aim at Education for sustainable
development and citizenship, pushing for knowledge, skills, values
and attitudes, from local to global levels, to promote sustainable
development. The proposed hands-on learning approach has among its
outcomes the enhancement of some skills which have been highlighted
as crucial competencies for sustainable development (Vallabh, 2018):
systemic thinking, the ability to understand and design for complexity,
anticipatory thinking (projection of solutions which might open new
sustainable scenarios through a first speculative approach), critical
thinking, co-design, empathy, interdisciplinary work.
The aim of the course was to build a syllabus to express the
potentialities of material design in design education to foster sustainability
awareness among young designers. The match between DIY-Materials,
bio-fabricated materials and bioreceptive ones was built upon the
observation of shared design methodologies and sustainability principles
by these approaches (Fig.1); the sequence of the three workshops was
built on difficulty that occurs for the development of the material by
the designer, which also reflects learning of the basics of life principles
of sustainability, from reasoning about circular materials flows to the
material and energy exchanges occurring in the relationships of an
ecosystem with multiple agents.
Figure 1 Diagram showing how the themes of DIY-Materials, bio-
fabricated materials and bioreceptive materials share similar design
methodologies and interconnected sustainability principles.
Source: Authors
Description of the learning
path through materials
Like many developing countries, Mexico recognizes its role as a producer of
raw materials, playing a significant role in the globalized economic system.
Even if the concept of a CE is relatively new, public policy and researchers
seeking to implement a circular economy model are proliferating since
both the literature and national statistics show significant potential in
adopting a CE model (Munoz-Melendez et al., 2021). The general attention
to new materials is not as strong here compared to other countries,
unless triggered by large global industries3. However, biodesign is also
feeding a small niche of interest in Mexico: this is relatively new but
slowly growing in different sectors, finally developing projects local-
related to waste streams and social needs. The Mexican scene can fit into
the broader South American one, where a Biodesign Challenge Hub has
recently been established, showing interest and active participation4. To
make some Mexican examples, Taina Campos5 is working on biomaterials
employing corn leaves among other sources, and accompanying her
work with a narrative that promotes the protection of native corn, food
sovereignty, as well as supporting local women producers; Biology Studio
by Edith Medina6, is studying the intersection among biology, design
and ancestral knowledge to create textiles using raw materials from
bacteria, fungi, flowers and vegetables; Polybion7 is a company creating
high-performance biomaterials from locally produced fruit waste to craft
3 An example of this phenomenon is the materials design residency promoted by Space
10, powered by Ikea, to explore the local biomaterials of Mexico. Although these design
synergies can open global connections favorable to economic development (also in
terms of circular and sustainable products), they don't necessarily contribute to local
empowerment, but risk remaining an isolated phenomena. Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
4 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
5 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
6 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
7 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
a sustainable leather alternative. These examples show a turning point
in the local design landscape, but it is important to highlight that in this
area is more challenging to communicate the value of such projects,
whose economic and environmental potential is still poorly understood
by the design community and the industrial sector. Experiments in
materials and biodesign are emerging trends in design. However, they
are still little represented in the design of curricula in Mexico, as in the
rest of the World when looking at the big picture, and not at some trendy
niches in western countries. Some independent designers are working
as pioneers in DIY or bio-fabricated circular materials. Still, the lack of
knowledge in scientific disciplines could be a brake on experimentation in
academic environments that are not yet highly interdisciplinary. For this
reason, rethinking the designer’s curriculum by including a theoretical
and practical training on these emerging materialities can not only
bring designers closer to the radical change that circular materials and
biotechnologies can offer to the project, but it can also help them develop
the skills needed to be professionals on a sustainable development
trajectory. The course has been provided in Mexico as part of the ITESO
elective International Summer course, and it lasted eight weeks. The
aim of the course was to provide students with new ways of conceiving
materials and their impacts. Taking circular design as a starting point,
different methodologies for the development and application of new
sustainable materials were discussed. The syllabus was nurtured by the
authors’ previous knowledge and teaching experience on sustainable
design and materials. Having two different geographical perspectives,
one European and the other Mexican, this difference enriched both the
general method and the syllabus, creating a model that refers to the
potential of the territory, but whose main educational structure can be
applied anywhere in the World, precisely because it is based on the use of
local resources and low tech processes. The topics covered by the course
requirements are strongly interdisciplinary; in this sense, it was helpful
to have a mixed class of designers and engineers who could cross-
pollinate their previous knowledge for the design challenges proposed by
the course. The development of new materials, as well as the growth of
living materials, requires skills that are missing in the traditional training
paths of designers; for this reason, a series of cards and worksheets,
used as a guide, analysis, and reflection tools, have been developed for
each workshop, to help students in the research and design process, but
above all developing systemic thinking. The first week of the course has
been introductory, discussing the leading theories of sustainable design
with a broad understanding of its evolution, from the principles of the
early green design to the last guidelines of circular design, passing by
the life cycle approach as a fundamental aspect for understanding the
impacts of materials within the design project. From the second to the
seventh week, three workshops were dedicated to developing students’
practical knowledge on three different material scenarios: DIY-Materials,
bio-fabricated materials, and bioreceptive once. The last and eighth
week was dedicated to wrapping up and preparing the latest materials
and prototypes for the last exhibition. Each workshop started with one
day of theoretical content to introduce the different topics, including an
introductory lecture from national and international guests afferent to the
circular and new materials scene. The DIY Materials workshop started
with a research and analysis of local wastes in view of the possibility of
being revalued for the development of new circular material considering:
the abundance of flows, current uses, type of production industry, and
production scenarios, as well as the processing methods with research
of case studies showing existing applications worldwide. After initial
experimentation with the most well-known and widespread bioplastic
recipes (which made the students familiar with the possibility of actually
creating materials), students experimented with local waste, appreciating
sugar cane, coconut and pineapple scraps. All these resources are
abundantly present on the territory as part of the local supply chain. In
addition, tools developed by the authors were used to perform the design
process and the final material assessment through an intuitive approach.
A procedural thinking material scheme has been proposed to support
students not to get lost in the many possibilities of experimenting with
the material. Dedicated cards supported the intuitive analysis of the
experiments carried out, to discover and appreciate material properties
and applications. At the end of each laboratory, students were asked to
identify the main characteristics of the new developed material through
cards previously developed by the author for the ITESO Material Library
(Fig.2), to recognize the properties of a material through the senses,
referring to an intuitive approach, before using laboratory analyses.
During the course, these cards were used on the most promising samples,
guiding students through an intuitive knowledge of the material, so that
they could change the design according to its current and desirable
Figure 2. Intuitive materials analysis cards developed
for Materioteca ITESO activities.
The second workshop was on bio-fabricated materials, here the
students experimented the growth of two different growing materials
(Camere & Karana, 2017), bacterial cellulose got from kombucha
fermentation and mycelium. One of the most relevant aspects of this
workshop has been the connection between local bio-designers and
entrepreneurs. For this workshop the lectures and the starter kit with
living materials were, in fact, provided by Radial biomaterials8, a studio
producing circular mycelium-based biomaterials from Agave residues,
and Muutus biomaterials9, a designer developing experimental materials
and products based on bacterial cellulose from kombucha fermentation,
especially for the textile sector of Aguascalientes, Mexico. The
connection with designers operating on a market level, and showing the
circular potential of bio-fabricated material from local waste streams,
was a further aspect showing students the effectiveness of these
materials for the regional bioeconomy. The worksheets supporting the
second workshop focused on the organisms necessary for their growth,
including a practical guide on how to work with living materials (basic wet
lab skills). The third workshop introduced bioreceptive design, where the
students were asked to think about inert/alive material assemblages to
address local environmental issues related to polluted environments and
biodiversity loss. The workshop started also in this case with research on
the depleted or polluted zones of the territory; this helped make students
aware of the area’s environmental problems, looking for solutions in
restoring the original environmental conditions through the project.
Among the tools provided for the workshop, the bioreceptive material
method (Pollini & Rognoli, 2021b) has been provided, supporting the work
with worksheets dedicated to deepening the study of the organism and
the environment to design the suitable artifact/material accordingly.
8 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
9 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
Findings and results
To understand the adequacy of such a training proposal, correlating
materials and sustainability and firmly rooted in knowledge through
practice, the authors collected data during all the course through
observation and field notes. Part of this analysis is related to a twenty-
eight questions survey the students were asked to take at the end of the
course to gather information about their overall experience regarding the
presented topics and the three workshops’ experiences. Ten students
took part in the survey. The survey covered the students’ background
and their familiarity with the topics proposed within the course; in
addition, for each workshop, the questions aimed to understand which
aspects students perceived as more challenging, engaging, and valuable.
Students were asked about the design methodologies and the practical
knowledge gained through the workshops, and their perception of living
materials in the design practice. Being the course an elective one, the
students were asked about their motivations for taking the course;
from the survey, the main trigger in subscribing appeared to be the
will to know more about circular economy and sustainable materials
alternatives. Students also referred to the practice of DIY and the
emphasis on experimentation as key-point in deciding to take the course,
while one student also valued the possibility of making it follow an
entrepreneurial path. This answer confirms that sustainability, joined
with a practice-based approach, is a powerful trigger for designers, who
may even foresee taking an entrepreneurial way after a first educational
stimulus. This path is, in fact, not new in material design and biodesign.
Two significant examples are the dutch company StoneCycling10, born
as a startup based on Tom van Soest’s thesis project on the upcycling
of construction waste; in biodesign, the designer Maurizio Montalti, after
a thesis on the use of mycelium as a “human-digestor” in a burial suite
10 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
with the project Continuous Bodies–Bodies of Change, continued his
professional and working career designing with mycelium in various
aspects (from speculative to workable), up to founding the first European
company of products based on mycelium, Mogu11.
The following three paragraphs will describe the student’s feedback
and the analyzed outcomes for each workshop.
4.1 Student’s awareness and potentialities
perceived in DIY-Materials
Regarding the first workshop, just over half of the participants were
already familiar with the DIY-Materials concept. Among those who have
declared themselves aware, just a few were already familiar with the
process of bioplastic making. The answers were quite similar when the
students were asked about the potential link between the practice of
DIY-material and the concept of circular economy: all agreed on having
realized the abundance of waste discovered by the first analysis of
the territory. The students pointed out the potentiality observed while
tinkering with those wastes, confirming the validity of the tinkering
activity to envision new material possibilities. Asked about the major
challenges in the DIY-materials process, students reported the challenge
of not finding the right recipe and, therefore, feeling stuck in envisioning
a application for the material. This initial frustration may derive from the
feelings that designers experience in the path of trial and error typical of
this approach (Rognoli et al., 2017), which does not aim at an immediate
result, but it makes a value of the experimental and experiential path.
However, most of the students successfully passed this first stage,
reporting how the newfound ability to get samples of materials with an
experimental practice was the most exciting aspect of the workshop. Many
11 Retrieved 6 April 2022, from
students have referred to the MDD method presented in the introductory
theoretical lesson as a valid approach to envisioning applications.
Figure 3. Use of the provided tools and selected materials
outcomes showing the DIY-Materials workshop process.
4.2 Student’s awareness and potentialities
perceived in bio-fabricated materials
Regarding the second workshop on bio-fabricated materials, just over
half of the students didn’t know about bio-fabrication. Among those
familiar with the concept, algae, mycelium and bacteria were known for
their material potentialities, reflecting actually the most experimented
organisms in biodesign: it was interesting to notice, though, that the
majority mentioned algae. In this experimental path, students reported
that the principal challenges have been understanding the bio-fabricated
material’s real potentialities, the need to follow clean protocol conditions,
and the time factor affecting the length of the experiments. Interestingly
enough, the primary concern turned out to be also one of the main
valuable aspects of the workshop too; in fact, one third answered that
understanding the bio-fabricated material’s potentialities in design
has been the real value of the practice-based activity, while the other
participants referred to the possibility of creating something alive as
the most triggering aspect. The students agreed that one of the most
frustrating aspects was the uncertainty in the outcomes; many reported
being afraid that something was wrong with their culture. Despite
following the showed procedure, the growth variability was felt with a bit
of anxiety that the organisms could not grow well. One student pointed out
that “there is no specific pattern to follow, through experimentation and
investigation is how you find out information, “, reflecting the uncertainty
feeling also reported at the initial stage of the DIY-Material workshop.
The class was composed of both design and engineering students: the
authors noticed that while this explorative procedure might be enjoyable
from a designer’s point of view, from a more scientific and engineering
one, uncertainty in the outcomes might be felt as frustrating. Once again,
the survey reported the value of understanding the material properties
through an experimental path: a student reported having particularly
enjoyed “the liberty to be so creative and in charge of the process through
all the course”. A distinctive key concept here was the fascination of
working with something alive and being able to follow its growth. The
students positively evaluated the tools provided to guide them through
the discovery of mycelium and bacterial cellulose as living materials
(e.g., ID card, worksheet), declaring that they are likely to reuse them in
the future.
The students were also asked about their perception of these alive
materials for design: on the answers they split in half, the once relating to
them as functional materials for design, but the other admitting to perceive
them more than living organisms. The students agreed that the material
feature that primarily identifies a material as bio-fabricated is a “non-
homogeneous aesthetic of colors and shapes that changes over time”.
4.3 Student’s awareness and potentialities
perceived in bioreceptive materials
Strangely enough (given the recent new definition proposed), two-thirds
of the students stated to be familiar with the concept of bioreceptive
design; however, the third workshop was probably the most challenging
in design and planning. In fact, after two workshops in which the act of
experimentation was guiding the design process, in the third workshop the
students were asked to develop a project, choosing their basic materials
and techniques to find a solution to a local environmental problem, taking
into consideration the potential of bioreceptive materials for problems
related to the loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution. The
students saw in this “freedom”, which required problem analysis and
Figure 4. Use of the provided tools and selected materials outcomes
showing the bio-fabricated materials workshop process.
design planning, too little time to conceive a good idea. Also, in this case,
the challenge reported turned out to be the most exciting thing in finding a
solution. The students said the concept and potentialities of bioreceptive
design as more attractive. Still, they also declared that they enjoyed the
entire design process, from the analysis of the problem to the designed
material solution. Most of the students claimed the proposed method
to be useful, but sometimes difficult to apply; some complained about a
technicality such as the microclimatic parameters to be considered. This
feedback will be helpful for the authors to simplify the method in future
workshops with limited time for deep reflection.
Figure 5. Use of the provided tools and selected materials outcomes
showing the bioreceptive materials workshop process.
4.4 Student’s general opinion on the course
From more general questions on the entire course, all the students
have shown sincere enthusiasm in working hands on with the material,
confirming their will to pursue it in the future.
This feeling was also clear from observing students’ attitudes; in fact,
even if the course was in hybrid mode and the students could decide
how much time to spend in the laboratory, they always used all the time
available to them to experiment with the materials there.
To the critical question of how much this didactic approach
has changed their perception of the role of materials in design for
sustainability, the answers were all encouraging, reporting an increase
in the environmental awareness of materials and their life cycle, and an
interest in learning new techniques and material possibilities starting
from circular models and the revaluation of territorial wastes. Students
stated they realized the countless sustainable material alternatives that
this approach can unveil and help develop: one of them stated “I think
that before I saw the creation of a material as something unreachable
that I could not do, but after this course I broke that barrier”. The authors
also recognized the advantage of having a mixed class of two disciplines
(engineering and design) who could compare and collaborate, even
compensating for the general attitude of their respective classical study;
one student declared “Sometimes is difficult to see a more creative way
of being an engineer. This course has allowed me to expand my horizons
and realize that indeed I can be creative”. As general advice for improving
the course, the only sign was related to time. The students would have
wanted more time, which is reasonable considering the time needed for
experimentation, especially when living organisms are involved.
The outcomes of the course and the inquiry attitude of the students
showed how materials direct experimentations can increase awareness
of materials’ life cycle, bringing the designer closer to local and wasted
sources, to low-tech processes, and to the rediscovery of ancient
practices and designerly way of knowing. The recent democratization
of scientific knowledge opens up the possibility for design to hybridize
with other scientific disciplines and to experiment with living organisms,
creating bio-fabricated materials generated through biological growth
processes, or bioreceptive materials, able to support living forms for
healthier and synergetic environments. To be grasped by designers and
engineers, these emerging new materialities need to be considered in
their classical training, to enhance a deep knowledge of the dynamics
that relates materials to the impacts of design project, but also to
introduce students to the basic techniques for the experiential knowledge
of these new emerging materials. One of the key aspects of the course
has been the connection with local resources and professionals in the
field. The students started with a focus on the organic waste of the
territory, realizing the linear management of valuable sources deriving
mainly from the food supply chain, and being able to envision them in
a circular economy perspective through design practice. The materials’
samples showed them, experientially and experimentally, how a circular
model could work and what potential (still unexpressed) their territory
could exploit. In biodesign and bio-fabricated materials, knowing the local
realities, allowed students to approach the topic in a rooted way with
their territory, opening the possibility for them to refer or even join the
local and regional biodesign scene that already actively contribute to
innovation in biotechnologies. The last workshop allowed the students
to approach local environmental problems. This analysis merged the
fundamental aspects of the entire path, challenging the students to
combine the World of inert materials with living ones for multi-species
design projects where the living part could also contribute to the
protection and healthiness of local ecosystems. The field observations
and the results of the survey proved the effectiveness of this pedagogical
approach in increasing students’ environmental awareness, passing
through an experiential study that helped them to focus on the dynamics
that bind the material to the project, providing methods and useful tools
to develop skills such as systemic and critical thinking, empathy and
interdisciplinarity, that are fundamental to train capable professionals
to lead sustainable development. Following the student’s suggestions,
further editions of the course should dedicate more time to the second and
third workshops, while smoothing the learning path in bioreceptive design
with additional supporting tools or avoiding technicalities is unnecessary
for a first approach to this more complex theme. As a last consideration,
the educational approach presented here is based on interdisciplinarity;
therefore, it can find usefulness in the training paths of designers and
engineers, who in equal measure can contribute to the development of
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