A tree may be the earliest multifunctional structure, and wood is the oldest known engineering material. Yet, trees have no place in engineering education. If we view a tree from merely a mechanical or civil engineering perspective, engineering mechanics can be learned from the tree’s example.

Trees have survived by adapting to the most difficult circumstances: heavy winds, rains, floods, droughts, earthquakes, mammal damage, human intervention, etc. The root system must be strong and flexible enough to support the tree’s entire structure from varying load conditions and to provide food storage and nutrient transfer. The stem system provides structural support for the tree’s above-the-ground parts and transfers water and nutrients from the roots through the network of thick-walled cells to other parts of the tree. Leaves produce food and form the surface area surrounding the tree. Leaves come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The tree’s crown, comprising branches, leaves, and reproductive elements, help the tree to catch more sunlight. It moves upward and outward to expose more of its leaves to direct sunlight for photosynthesis while maintaining physical balance on the earth.

A tree’s lifecycle can span hundreds of years, despite its vulnerability to constantly changing loads throughout the day and throughout its life. In monsoon and windy seasons, trees endure extremely difficult fatigue-loading. Various parts of the tree and its stem are subjected to combined loading conditions: tension, compression, shear, bending, and torsion. Trees develop and adapt stress management strategies by adjusting their shapes to the type or level of stress they endure: they add more mass where more strength is needed, allows material to easily break off (or physiologically inactive) from locations where it is not necessary, design optimum shapes, and create variable notch radii for reducing stress concentration. But a tree is much more than a structural member. It provides food and shelter for wildlife. It absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. It lowers air temperature and facilitates the water cycle.

Structural analysis of a tree can benefit engineering students and practicing engineers alike. Furthermore, a deeper understanding of trees can help us to create multifunctional designs that are in a symbiotic relationship with other members in the system. In short, studying tree mechanics can help us to become better engineers.

This paper presents our efforts to integrate trees into engineering curricula to teach mechanics ranging from equilibrium study to stress analysis. Students of statics, dynamics, the strength of materials, stress analysis, material science, design, etc., can benefit from learning about trees. This approach enables students to understand the complexities of real-world living systems, appreciate the genius of nature’s design, and develop methods for creating sustainable designs.

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