5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Karen Latchana Kenney

On the final stop of this year’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction tour, we visit Karen Latchana Kenney and her latest YA title Folding Tech: Using Origami and Nature to Revolutionize Technology. Researchers use folding technologies to create everything from nanobots to telescope lenses that unfold to the size of a soccer field. The engineers behind these inventions take inspiration from an unusual source—origami! This book examines how the ancient art intersects with STEM. Keep reading to learn more about Karen’s writing process, Expository Literature, and the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction.

Please describe your research and writing process briefly, and talk about why you took the approach you did with Folding Tech

Most people know how make at least one simple piece of origami. They probably learned how to fold a crane or frog in elementary school. It’s pretty incredible to make a delicate little piece of art just from paper and your hands. When I learned how origami and folding were influencing the design of large and small structures that can withstand the volatile environment of space or strategically journey through the human body, I knew there was a real STEAM story to tell.

I began researching Folding Tech by watching some great documentaries and talks. The PBS NOVA episode “The Origami Revolution” was especially good, along with TED Talks by folding researchers Robert J. Lang and Kaori Kuribayashi-Shigetomi. I started discovering the many uses of folding technology from biological to astronomical. Then I found some pioneers in this fairly new field to interview: Robert J. Lang (former NASA engineer and now FT origami artist) and Thomas Hull (Mathematics professor at Western New England University). Through our talks, I understood more about the mathematics behind folding and how nature was involved. They pointed me in the right direction for further research and provided me with photos we included in the book.

I read everything I could: origami books, scientific journals and books about natural folding patterns of insect wings, rigid origami patterns for thick materials, and the mathematical theories involved with folding.

How did you decide to organize the information?

Finding the story behind the science is always the best part of researching any book for me. Therefore, I decided to begin Folding Tech with the story about the very first use of folding technology in space.

In 1995 the Japanese Space Flyer Unit used the Miura fold (called the Miura-ori) on a solar array. At the time, the scientific community did not take using origami to inform technological design seriously. What could an ancient art form teach aerospace engineers? It was an experimental, and a bit controversial, approach, but Japanese astrophysicist Korya Miura bravely tried the technique. He created an innovative solution to getting a large solar array into a small rocket and then easily deploying it in space. Since that time, the field has grown tremendously, and the scientific community has more widely accepted the practice.

Folding technology has so many different components, and each one has a story of its own. I structured the book around those aspects, moving from more of a foundational background to its modern applications. I started by covering origami’s long history and the development of a universal origami diagram language which made the art form accessible to the world. The text moves on to the study of efficient folding in nature and how it applies to technology. (For example the earwig’s wing springs open, barely using any energy to do so.) I also included what kinds of math behind the geometry of folding and how understanding the math makes it possible to fold any imaginable shape. Folding Tech closes with engineering’s current methods of using folding techniques and the vastly different kinds of technology being created.

Since we can all try folding at home, I wanted this book to be interactive! I included folding instructions for the Miura-ori, crane, and a force folding technique in Folding Tech. The book also includes some augmented reality features that allow kids to virtually fold and unfold some of NASA’s folding machines. They’re really fun to try!

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

To keep an open mind and pay attention to all that you see, experience, and learn. Innovative ideas can come from the most unexpected places and lead to life-changing discoveries. I would like them to see how folding technology evolved from many influences and perspectives, helping us peer deep into space, explore the sea, and heal the human body. I hope readers will be inspired to research what they find fascinating, and to see the connections in what they discover!

EXPOSITORY LITERATURE is a category of Melissa Stewart’s Five Kinds of Nonfiction. This post is part of a weekly series of guest articles by nonfiction authors about their craft, their process, and their amazing books. Stay tuned each week to learn more by visiting the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction page for poster and flyer downloads, curated booklists and more. You can also follow the Lerner Blog’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction series, or the hashtag #5KNF on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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