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Virginia Journal of Education


A 'Crafty' Way to Boost STEM Achievement

by Glen Bull and Erika Carson

Student advancement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been identified as a national priority. President Obama declared, to the National Academy of Sciences, that our future prosperity depends upon the ability of young people to “create, build and invent.” In response there has been a call for an increased emphasis on hands-on learning to address this need.

In contrast to many academic subjects, engineering involves reduction of theory into practice, often involving the translation of digital designs into physical objects. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge in a classroom setting. Introduction of physical materials and engineering equipment into a classroom can present logistical and economic challenges. However, learning science and mathematics in an authentic engineering context can be engaging for both teachers and students. Fortunately, there are inexpensive entry points for doing this. 

For example, paper engineering—folding and cutting construction paper or cardstock to create pop-ups, mechanical models and other creations—can provide a gateway to engineering design. (Paper engineering is subset of a larger class of craft technologies.) An exhibit at the Smithsonian traces the history of paper engineering from its roots to modern times ( 

Paper engineering can be introduced with simple tools such as scissors and the aforementioned card stock or construction paper. Engineering design challenges involving physical construction (e.g., developing packaging for a product with the least amount of surface area – conservation of resources) can introduce science and math in an engaging context.  

JavaGami is a free software application for designing paper models using polyhedrals developed by the Craft Technology Group at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can either design your own models, or download models that others have created from a gallery on the Craft Technology web site,

This type of activity can serve as an entry point for 2D digital fabrication. Digital fabricators such as the Silhouette ( are essentially computer-controlled die cutters. Design software permits the student to create a digital design on the computer and translate the design into a physical object with the fabricator. A new class of corresponding digital fabrication software designed for schools such as FabLab ModelMaker (Aspex), Fab@School Designer (FableVision), Diorama Designer, and Community Construction Kit (Tom Snyder Productions) has been developed for the purpose of fabricating.  

Craft technologies combine traditional crafts such as paper engineering with modern technologies such as digital circuitry. These can be used to construct objects such as mechanical toys, paper sculptures that light up, and stuffed animals with embedded intelligence.   

We’re providing information on the Craft Technology Group at the University of Colorado at Boulder as one way of responding to this challenge. Their site, Craft_Tech.html, contains numerous examples of activities that combine traditional crafts with emergent technologies. 

For example, the Sewing Circuits project provides a construction kit and accompanying activities that allow kids to learn about circuits through sewing tasks. This provides what is sure to be an engaging design context for learning about science and mathematical concepts. These design challenges have the potential to reach a wider audience and spark an interest for future designers. 

The National Academy of Engineering recommends that natural connections between engineering and mathematics education be exploited by linking engineering design to modeling. Math connections are inherent in the engineering design process as students develop models on a computer that are translated into tangible objects through digital fabrication. Craft technologies can offer an engaging way to integrate these methods into the curriculum. 

The federal government has initiated a Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program to “build the next generation cadre of manufacturing innovators - starting at the high school level.” Participating students will engage in a distributed design and manufacturing experiment using social media to collaborate across schools to design and build autonomous vehicles.  

The MENTOR program has adopted the goal of deploying a variety of digital fabrication systems to high schools across the country, with the goal of reaching 1,000 high schools in the next three years. Schools at all levels can provide their students with a head start in exploring these 21st century skills through activities such as the ones developed at the Craft Technology Center.

Bull ( is co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Carson ( is a doctoral fellow in the Center for Technology and Teacher Education.



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