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Inspiring the E(ngineering) in STEM by Exploring the Construction of Pop-up Books

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This post was written by Peter DeCraene, the 2020-21 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

The same Observe-Reflect-Question protocol that can guide primary source analysis can also launch an engineering design process by helping learners to define a problem and imagine what a solution might look like. Extending the process by a couple of steps, Plan and Create, completes one cycle of an engineering design process. Students can experience and apply this engineering process by constructing their versions of something that has been around at least from the middle of the nineteenth century: the pop-up book.

Ask students to observe the two still pictures from Library of Congress videos about pop-up books. What do they notice? What do they wonder about the pictures?

Picture of Little Red Riding HoodPop-Up Book
Page from Little Red Riding Hood, published by Dean & Son around 1855. The video explaining the book can be found here (timestamp 16:52)

Image from 2008 National Book Festival, featuring Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, authors of many pop-up books.
From 2008 National Book Festival, video featuring Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, authors of many pop-up books. They are demonstrating some pop-up techniques. The video can be found here (timestamp 7:41)

To focus discussion and thinking, ask students:

  • How do the illustrations shown differ from most pictures in books?
  • What is similar about the paper constructions in the two pictures?
  • How do they think the two constructions were made? What materials were used to create the constructions?

Show students these still images from the video featuring the same page of the Red Riding Hood book shown above, which provide some clues about how the pop-up worked.

Sample of construction of a pop up book
Sample of construction of a pop-up book. Recording: timestamp 16:52

Demonstration of construction of Pop Up Book page 2
Sample construction of a pop-up book. Recording: timestamp 16:42


  • What do these two images tell about how the Red Riding Hood illustration was created?
  • What do you think the blue ribbon is for?
  • How is this different from the construction that Robert Sabuda is holding in the other picture?

And here’s where the engineering comes in. Ask students to plan how they might create a similar construction. Perhaps they can consult with each other about this work before they begin (as so many inventors and engineers do). Provide supplies like paper, scissors, tape, and ribbon or string, and encourage the students to create a model quickly. First attempts often don’t work the way their creators might wish, so working quickly and learning from the attempt is more important than the actual result. During the video, Robert Sabuda talks about the process being messy and needing many attempts to get a construction the way he wants it. (A caution: At one point he says the first attempts “suck.”)

The engineering process is a cycle that requires people to design and create multiple versions of their ideas, to observe how each version works, and reflect on how they might make it better. Discuss with the students how they might improve their work on a second attempt, and what “aha” moments they had while making the first construction. Ask them to observe and reflect on the work of their classmates, and to ask questions about each others’ processes. (It is not often that we get to ask the creators of primary sources what they were thinking!)

Encourage the students to explore their creativity and problem solving in revising their work without detailed directions. If students do find themselves unproductively struggling, the rest of the Sabuda/Reinhart video shows how to make several different kinds of pop-ups. The construction of the birthday cake in the Sabuda/Reinhart video begins at timestamp 2:15. Encourage students to experiment on their own, to make mistakes, and to learn from their experiences; this is how engineering is done.

Providing time and space for students to exercise their creativity, make mistakes, and revise their work is an important part of the engineering process. Let us know what your students come up with!

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