Engineering Inside:

2013 Issue 1

Folding Matters

June 2013

Did you know that origami and engineering share something in common? Folding! From paper craneheart stents, to airbags, to collapsible solar panels on spacecraft, folding lets engineers fit big ideas into small packages.

Folding and unfolding of materials is an important element in engineering design.  Consider a telescope, where circles of metal have to fit neatly within the next in order to expand and be stored compactly. Airbags are another example…they have to be folded in such a way to open properly but also to be stored in tight spaces.  It is also true of solar panels that are used in space.  Spacecraft have limited storage areas, so whatever is carried to space must be folded in a compact way and then deployed with an engineering system so the solar panels unfold and are functional.  Heart stents work the same way…a small device is sent via a tube to the heart and then when released at the end of the tube, it must unfold or open, and then function as engineered.

Design a Foldable “Solar Panel”

You are an engineer who has been given the challenge of developing a solar panel that can solar panelbe folded into a box for shipping to the international space station. Your solar panel must be at least 1 foot or about 30 cm, by 3 feet or about 90 cm in size when unfolded.

To create your solar panel there are a few items that you will need:

aluminum foil box with metal rip bar removed for safety (it’s a good idea to get an adult to help with this), roll of aluminum foil, tape, cardboard, rubber bands, ruler, popsicle sticks, straws, pipe cleaners, paper clips, glue, scissors, cotton balls, paper, fabric etc.

Before you begin and if internet access is available, read about the James Webb Space Telescope ( and watch the animation showing how engineers have planned how the telescope will unfold in space at

Step One: Develop a detailed drawing showing your solar panel including a list of materials.

Step Two:

Build your solar panel. It must fit into a standard box that foil is sold in (about 12.25 inches or 31 cm long by 2 inches or 5 cm square).

Step Three:

Test the removal of your solar panel, and make any necessary modifications. Reflect on the challenge by answering the questions below.


Get your friends to build a foldable solar panel! Compare each of your designs and consider.

Who generated the best design? What made theirs more effective?

How else might your foldable design be applied?

Are some of your friends designs better for some types of tasks?

Could you create a new design that can works in all the types of usages you have identified?

Leave a comment


Explore your Career Interests Online!

Considering a major in engineering, computing, or technology but not sure where to start? A world of information is right at your fingertips — online!

Read more


Blast off with IEEE E-Scientia!

Get ready to boldly take on the role of an engineer in space at a museum near you! IEEE has developed a unique hands-on museum exhibit that invites students to test their engineering skills on an incredible simulated space flight.

Read more

Find a University

Search for accredited engineering degree programs throughout the world. Launch