How can you make a cardboard owl that flaps its wings? Or a paper flower that blooms? With funding from the National Science Foundation, we are working with the University of Colorado’s Craft Technology Lab and the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco to study and enhance the engineering education potential of Paper Mechatronics, an innovative educational technology genre that mixes creative papercrafts, mechanical design, and computational thinking. Soon, young learners will be designing real and fantastical paper inventions of their own imagination and animate them with mechanical motions.
The new two-year project builds off an earlier project by Principal Investigators Sherry Hsi and Michael Eisenberg, which prototyped several Paper Mechatronics design projects, organized activity formats, and piloted the various design elements with children and adults to determine which worked best to inspire learning and teach design. These included a custom software design tool, simple hardware modules, cardboard electronics, sample workshop formats, and project ideas. Early Paper Mechatronics activities—from a percussion workshop to a cereal hackathon and a Robot Petting Zoo—showed encouraging results with after school youth (ages 12-18) and museum visitors.
Mechanical duck designed with Paper Mechatronics.
Robot Petting Zoo.
Paper Mechatronics engaged participants in key engineering design practices (design, build, test), though learners were challenged by translating their visions into mechanical actions. So, to support designers who had no electronics or computer-aided design background and limited computer programming experience, Ph.D. student HyunJoo Oh designed FoldMecha, which generates paper-based templates for a number of design parameters such as shape, size, and type of motor movements that can be cut out with a paper or laser cutter.
The new project will expand and improve this early Paper Mechatronics design software for modeling mechanical components and movements and create a new Paper Mechatronics kit with instructional resources, electronically enhanced crafting materials, low-cost microcontrollers and accessories, and custom design software.
Our research goal is to explore how to support novice designers in learning from the Paper Mechatronics kit and study how youth develop adaptive expertise, including knowledge-seeking, resourcefulness, confidence, and persistence. We’ll research how on-ramps to engineering design activities like engaging in paper mechatronic design activities help youth develop adaptive expertise and what types of instructional resources and scaffolding are most useful in supporting learners to be creative in engineering design.