Origami Engineering

Oct. 2014 Jr. Chapter STEM Activity
Origami Engineering
Some simple advice:
Be prepared. Test-drive the activity beforehand.
Have all the required materials on hand.
Keep students on track.
Keep an eye on the clock and follow the time frame.
Be flexible and creative.
Have fun!
Origami Engineering
Students work in teams to design and build a 1 ft x 3 ft model solar panel
that folds into a small box without being damaged. After designing, they
share their models.
Engineering/STEM areas:
Mechanical engineering, engineering design, properties of materials
Learning objectives
• Learn how folding technology applies to engineering
• Learn about engineering design
• Learn how art and phenomena in the natural world can serve as
models for new technologies
• Practice teamwork and problem solving
Origami Engineering
45-60 mins
Suggested group size:
Student Resource Sheets (in lesson)
Student Worksheets (in lesson)
Aluminum foil (enough so each team has 1 ft x 3 ft)
Boxes from aluminum foil with the metal tear bar removed (one box for each
team. Other small boxes can be substituted.)
• Materials to use for panels, such as cardboard, tape, rubber bands, popsicle
sticks, plastic rods, straws, pipe cleaners, paper clips, glue, fabric, Velcro,
paper, wood, and other easy-to-get items.
• Ruler (one for each group)
Origami Engineering
Before the activity:
• Read through the student resources so you have the background information
• Gather all the necessary materials. Put small objects such as paper clips in
containers. If possible, have enough scissors, tape, etc. on hand so that each
group can have their own. (use can save them an re-use for another activity)
• Prepare the foil boxes by tearing off the metal cutter strip
• Add a list of materials you’re making available to the appropriate box on the
Student Worksheet.
• Make enough copies of the Student Resource so that each student has one
• Make one copy of the Student Worksheet per group, plus a few extras
• Make your own example of a folding solar panel that fits into a small box. Be ready
to explain some of the thinking you put into the design.
Origami Engineering
What’s important about folding?
An origami artist can take a flat sheet of
paper and make it into a lion or a bird or a
building by knowing how to fold it. Origami is
really a type of engineering. With paper as
the only material, origami makes use of
folding to shape the flat paper into another
Folding may seem like a simple procedure,
but it can be very powerful. Nature makes
use of the power of folding in many ways.
Buds hold folded forms of flowers inside
them, a ladybug folds its wings under a
protective shell when it’s not flying, and the
function of the proteins in your body depends
on how they’re folded.
Origami Engineering
Engineers use folding for different
Folding increases surface area:
• Cells lining small intestine (nature)
• Parachute (engineers)
Folding can make something fit into a
smaller space:
• Heart stents – expand in artery
Heart stent (LA Weekly)
Folding can change the shape of an object:
• Self-assembling robot – easy to transport as flat, then launch
Folding nanoscale materials using origami principles is new focus of
research funding for NSF.
Origami Engineering
Folding for deployment in space
• Explain to students that they’ll be doing an
activity that imitates the process NASA
engineers have to go through.
The James Webb Space Telescope is so large is has
to be folded to fit on a rocket. (NASA)
• Hubble Space Telescope had folded solar
panels that unfolded into place after
• The James Webb Space Telescope (or JWST), scheduled to launch in
2018, is so large that the whole telescope will need to be folded to fit on a
• The sunshield on the telescope is the size of 18 tennis courts!
• See an animation of the spacecraft unfold:
Origami Engineering
Activity procedure
• Introduce the lesson by asking a few students
to describe what they do to fit as much into a
suitcase as they can when packing for a trip.
• Point out that when clothes are folded or rolled,
you can fit a lot more into a suitcase.
• Distribute the student resource and go over the
information in it with students. Make sure they
have a sense of the following two concepts:
• Engineers frequently use folding as a way
to store or transport an object, and to give
it functionality and greater surface area
• Many of the inspirations for folding come
from examples in nature.
Origami Engineering
Activity procedure (cont’d)
• Explain that students will design and build a folding solar panel that could be
transported on a spacecraft. If you have internet access, you could show the
video clip of the James Webb Space Telescope unfolding in space:
• Group students in teams of 3-4. Give them about 20 minutes to come up with a
design for their solar panels, including a list of materials. Circulate among them
and be available for questions.
• After 20 minutes, tell students to gather the materials they’ll need and begin
assembling and testing their models. Remind students that professional
engineers often go through many iterations of a design before they’ve gotten
one they’re satisfied with, so the design students have now doesn’t need to be
• After 15 minutes, give students a warning that they have 5 minutes left to
complete their models
Origami Engineering
Post-activity Assessment: Show and Tell
• Have student groups display and explain their solar panel models to the group
• Ask them to explain the thinking behind their models, and to describe how they
used folding to solve the problem
• Tell them to describe an aspect of the model that they thing works well
• Tell them to describe an aspect of the model that they’d like to improve upon
• Ask what aspects of other students’ models they would adopt, if applicable,
and why
Origami Engineering
Teaching tips
• Take the reins on dividing the class into student groups (rather than letting
students decide). If you know your students, try to be sure that each group has
a balance of personalities, with a mix of outgoing and more introverted
• Circulate around the classroom as students are working and be sure to keep
them on track, answer questions, and encourage students who are less
• Some groups will be ready to start creating right out of the starting gate. Others
will feel stumped. Use the example solar panel you made as a starting point
with groups having trouble, and give them hints about how to approach solving
the problem.
Origami Engineering
Teaching tips (cont.)
• Ask them to explain the thinking behind their models, and to describe how they
used folding to solve the problem
Some groups will readily discuss their models and others will be more
reserved. Remind students that engineering design is a process involving
many iterations, and that their model doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact,
collaboration and gathering ideas from other groups is a good idea.
Origami Engineering
• Working in a team and collaboration:
Students practice working on a team, hearing ideas of all team members, and
considering ideas from other teams.
• Engineering as a creative pursuit:
Student practice solving a problem creatively given a set of constraints
• The influence of art and nature in engineering:
Students consider how the ancient art of origami and examples in nature can
inspire engineering design
Origami Engineering
Resources and bibliography:
video of robot self assembling and walking away:
Questions about the activity?
Contact Robin Marks, Discovery Street Science
[email protected]

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