Caltech's Course on 'The Biomechanics of Organismal Design': Where Engineering Meets Biology

 At Caltech, a distinctive biology course introduces a new way students approach the life sciences. “The Biomechanics of Organismal Design,” taught by Professor Michael H. Dickinson, merges the concrete principles of physics with the dynamic patterns of biology. This integration offers a new perspective to students, particularly appealing to those with interests in mechanical engineering.

The course tackles intriguing questions like how penguins swim, why maple seeds spin to the ground, and the comparative strength of spider silk versus steel. While the course focuses on the organismal level, it also incorporates molecular, cellular, and tissue-level scales, painting a comprehensive picture of biological mechanics.

      Bram Schork, a mechanical engineering student who completed the course, shared his experiences, noting the unique approach of the class. “It was a fun blend of physics and biology,” Schork said. He highlighted the mechanical framework used by Professor Dickinson, which allowed students to tap into their existing knowledge of physics to decode biological phenomena. A standout example from the course was the analysis of a cricket’s jump, approached not through biological lenses but through mechanical diagrams. “We broke down the cricket into an energy source and a spring, allowing us to use our well known physics skills to start solving biological problems” Schork explained, emphasizing the application of familiar physics skills to biological questions.

      What is different about this course is its ability to offer a ‘change of pace,’ in Schork’s words, providing students an opportunity to apply their skills in physics and engineering within biology. For students like Schork and his peers, this course has been a gateway to appreciating the complexities of biological systems through the more familiar principles of mechanics.