Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Karen Latchana Kenney, author of FOLDING TECH: Using Origami and Nature to Revolutionize Technology. Booklist says, “From folded cranes to collapsible solar sails, this offering provides an enticing look at a unique STEAM crossover.”
Mary Kay Carson: How did you come to write Folding Tech?
Karen Latchana Kenney: My editor Domenica DiPiazza at Lerner Publishing approached me with this topic after watching the PBS documentary The Origami Revolution. I loved the idea of connecting art with technology and wanted to expand it even more. I had questions—what other influences could help engineers find new folding techniques? And why is folding technology so important—what is it used for?
I found that folding technology is important in space, due to the spatial and weight restrictions necessary for rockets to reach Earth’s escape velocity. So, to get large solar arrays needed to power telescopes into space, they had to be able to fold up compactly within a rocket’s body and then unfold efficiently (without direct human assistance) when in space. Another area where folding is important is inside the human body, where it is useful to have compact tools enter small wounds and then expand inside the body. Smaller wounds are not only more aesthetically desired, but they decrease healing time and possibilities for infections.
Folding Tech covers not only where folding technology is needed in our lives, but also the artistic and natural inspiration for new folding techniques and the mathematics behind different kinds of folds. I spoke with and researched mathematicians (like Tom Hull, professor at Western New England University), professional origamists (including Robert J. Lang, who’s worked on a foldable space telescope lens), software engineers, and entomologists. I also included folding activities for kids to try, such as the natural folding patterns created through a force folding technique developed by Biruta Kresling. It was especially fun to connect these ideas with developing technology, like deep-sea collection tools inspired by origami.
MKC: Anything special about the book you’d like us to know?
Karen: I really like the interactive nature of this book, with origami folding exercises to try and Lerner’s AR app. The app brings images to life, like NASA’s InSight Mars lander image in Chapter 5. It shows how the lander’s solar arrays unfold from their compact shape. It’s really cool!
MKC: Care to share a favorite research discovery from Folding Tech?
Karen: One of the most fascinating bits of research I found was related to the folding mechanisms of insect wings, particularly the study of ladybug wings. Beetles have these delicate and large wings compactly folded underneath hard elytra, which rapidly unfold (in less than 1/10th of a second!) when they want to take flight and escape predators. Because they are hidden under elytra, it was difficult to study their folded shapes and the ways they unfolded and then folded back again. The scientists could not take high-speed photographs or videos of the unfolding process.
The solution came from someone not involved with the research—a secretary working with the researchers. She proposed replacing an elytron with a prosthetic made from UV-cured clear resin (commonly used in nail art). It worked, and the researchers were able to see and record how the wing unfolded and folded back again! They found that the wings’ veins stored energy like a spring when folded. That’s how the wings popped out so quickly to unfold. I love how a surprising idea from an unexpected source was key to solving this mystery. Here’s a diagram from the study that shows how ladybugs fold their wings.
MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books?
Karen: I love the curiosity and wonder inherent in working with STEM topics—the initial moment when scientists find the question they want to answer, the methodical experimentation and documentation they undergo to find clues to the mystery they want to solve, the collaboration across multiple disciplines needed to fully understand a problem, and often the surprising accidental discoveries scientists make when trying to find their answers.
Part of my interest in STEM is simply that I enjoy learning more about science and the natural world and writing about these topics helps me learn about unusual discoveries and scientific connections. I like seeing how concepts connect across multiple contexts—like the way ancient arts can influence space technology. Another big part of my interest in writing about STEM topics is my desire to promote respect and awe for the wonders of our world. I hope that my books will help kids have more respect for the environment and see what may have become mundane in the natural world in a new and exciting light. I hope these kinds of books initiate new questions that need to be solved by our future scientists.
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