Novel Engineering

Often teachers ask us how making can authentically connect literacy and language arts concepts. Tufts University’s Novel Engineering is answer! This is one of our favorite activities because it uses common recyclable materials, easy to access craft supplies, and encourages students to dive deeper into books and stories in order to create unique solutions for problems the characters are facing. With a focus on the literacy concepts, this is a fun way to bring engineering and simple machines into the classroom.


Novel Engineering was designed by a group of educators and researchers from the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. Their team has assembled an authentic way to integrate the engineering design process with a clear focus on literacy outcomes. They have created a curated list of books to get teachers started and have also provided examples of what novel engineering looks like in a classroom to help you brainstorm learning outcomes and prepare your lesson.

When we are working with students in a workshop setting we will often begin with commonly known fairy tale books and short picture book that we carefully curate for diverse representations. Some of our favorite diverse author/illustrators are Rachel Isadora, Duncan Tonatiuh, Carmen Tafolla, and Yuyi Morales. For more information about diverse fairy tales and picture books, check out our list of novel engineering fairy tale picture book and engineering problem examples and  this list of multicultural fairy tale books.

Novel Engineering Process (adapted from Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach):

  1. Read a book and define problems that the character(s) is/are facing.
    1. Discuss while reading, clarify as needed, identify design constraints.
    2. We created this visual guide handout to help keep designers on task
  2. Examine problems and brainstorm solutions for character client(s):
    1. Novel/Story is context and characters are client. Try to empathize with what they need in their situation.
    2. Make inferences from text, brainstorm solutions, define criteria
    3. Explore types of simple machines and recyclable building ideas to be used in design.
  3. Design solutions and plan the design.
    1. Consider and discuss what materials are needed for the design.
    2. Consider and discuss how the design will work.
    3. Sketch what will the design look like.
    4. Share and discuss designs and criteria/problem.
  4. Create functioning prototypes.
    1. Test it and reflect.
    2. Get feedback during Mid-Design Share Outs with fellow designers.
    3. Reflect on feedback and make notes of changes you make or questions you have.
  5. Improve design
    1. Revise and make design better after feedback and testing.
    2. Make note of changes.
  6. Share final design solution and design process
    1. Show off final solution to peers/audience.
    2. We created this reflective prompt guide to help students communicate their design and learning with others.

If you’re interested in learning more about Novel Engineering, check out these resources:

Articles about Novel Engineering:

Research about Novel Engineering:

MAKE Kirigami with Silhouette Studio Software

Kirigami is the art of paper cutting which dates back hundreds of years. This technique has inspired expressions from cultures all over the world, including, Chinese Jianzhi and shadow puppets, Japanese Monkiri and Senga, Polish and Ukrainian Wycinanki, German Scherenschnitte, and Mexican Papel Picado. You can view our Prezi, For the Love of Paper, to see a visual overview of kirigami from around the world. You can also explore modern uses of kirigami and new media techniques with real world connections with another Prezi, Modular Paper Engineering.

We love to being Kirigami explorations by discussing where we see the technique in our everyday lives. It can be seen in fabricated decorations (i.e. laser CNC metal signage, slidetogether lighting sculpture, Dia de los Muertos decoration, and even in clothing design cutouts). You can explore these digital fabrication techniques using Silhouette Studio software, which is free vector-based design software, and Silhouette Cameo machines, which have a small blade that can trim fabric, foam sheets, paper, vinyl, and more.

Try some of our Kirigami activities:

Cardboard Automata Simple Machines

Simple machines are super awesome and easy to make with everyday materials. Read our previous post about ways to introduce the idea of simple machines and how you can “upcycle” everyday materials you already have access to. One of our favorite simple machines to make is the automata sculpture, which uses cams and cranks to move a sculptural element. This activity allows the students to experience the components of the simple machine while also personalizing their creation to tell their own story. Having a few examples of different automata components is helpful, but there are also great videos that show the inner workings of these unique sculptures (consider watching this video montage of an automata museum display or this CBS special on automata with connections to the popular book and movie, Hugo).

Gather Materials:

  • Cardboard boxes and scraps
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Hot glue
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Markers
  • Small found objects for added weight if needed

Make It:

The Tinkering Studio has a great set of instructions for facilitating cardboard automata with children, including best practices considerations and ways of tying the sculpture to storytelling. We recommend letting the students experiment by building a generic automata with a simple cam follower and crank mechanism that will allow them to switch out different cams (circles, ovals, etc.). This allows them to really get hands-on experience with the different movement possibilities, which can further spark their design and let them experiment with how they can animate a scene or character to tell a story. These creations can be a great writing prompt to spark their storytelling imaginations or they can be a culminating activity to visualize an existing story they have written or previously read.

Design Experiments to Consider:

  • Try adding multiple cams for additional animated characters.
  • Try adding different components to create sounds related to the story.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

  • The Kids’ Book of Simple Machines: Cool Projects and Activities that Make Science Fun by Kelly Doudna
  • Gear Up! Marvelous Machine Projects by Keith Good
  • Looking Closely at Cardboard Automata (1st grade at Mount Vernon Private School)


Visual Storytelling with Comics and Manga

Every artist has art has to admit that you have a soft spot for comics and visual stories. Personally, we one of our favorite visual storytellers is Scott McCloud. Check out his great resources on how to develop comics to communicate powerful stories.

Martin Rayala (2011), points out the immense educational impact of creating visual stories, including multimodal literacy development, which can help students develop better stories:


Cultural Kirigami

Kirigami is the art of paper cutting which dates back hundreds of years. This technique has inspired expressions from cultures all over the world, including, Chinese Jianzhi and shadow puppets, Japanese Monkiri and Senga, Polish and Ukrainian Wycinanki, German Scherenschnitte, and Mexican Papel Picado. Using new media technology tools, this tutorial will teach you how to design your own cultural kirigami in Silhouette Studio software and use a Silhouette Cameo machine to trim and perforate a variety of thin media.

GATHER MATERIALS: (Vendors – Silhouette America)


  1. Think about cultural symbols that you identify with.
  2. Locate a high contrast image file of one of the symbols online using Google Image Search.
  3. Save the image in a basic raster image format (such as PNG, JPG, BMP, GIF, and TIF file types).
  4. Open the file in Silhouette Studio (File > Open option). Once in the software, the image then needs to be converted into a cuttable image that has lines present for the Silhouette Cameo cutting machine to recognize as cut lines.
  5. Click on the Select Trace Area tool.
  6. Draw a box around the image that is desired to be traced.
  7. Adjust any of the tracing filters as desired. Filters include the following:
    1. High Pass Filter – Allows the trace lines to be set beginning from the outside of your image and then works toward the inside of the image as the filter setting is adjusted up. This is a nice option if you are trying to create a basic cutting frame for a more detailed image. If you do not wish to create a frame outline for your image, you may wish to turn this option off.
    2. Low Pass Filter – Does the opposite of the High Pass Filter where tracing begins at the center points of your image parts and then works toward the outside of the image as the filter setting is adjusted up.
    3. Threshold – Determines how broadly you wish to apply the trace filter to your image beginning with the darkest colors for low settings and applies lighter color parts as well as you move to larger settings.
    4. Scale – This setting controls the smoothness of pixilated edges of your image. It is only necessary to use if the image in question is of a low quality and highly pixilated.
  8. Once you’ve selected the area to be traced, the trace filter will show a yellow area covering the image. This yellow area is a preview for where your cut lines would be created. Adjust filters as necessary.
  9. Select one the tracing methods under Apply Trace Method. The available trace options are as follows:
    1. Trace – This option will trace all outer and inner lines. This is generally preferable if you are attempting to create a regular cut image with multiple parts and specific details to be cut.
    2. Trace Outer Edge – This option will create a cut line only around the outer edges of your image. This is generally preferable if you are attempting to create a Print & Cut image.
    3. Trace and Detach – This option will punch out the image from the white background space. It is only used when you specifically removing the white background so that you can have select images overlap or be closer for Print & Cut jobs.
  10. Save your file (the software does not automatically save; therefore, you have to routinely save).



  1. Select the Text Tool and type a word or phrase that corresponds with the symbol you’ve traced.
  2. In the Text Styles window, you can adjust font style, justification, text size, character spacing, line spacing, and kerning. Experiment with these features to overlap the text.
  3. With the text selected, right-click on the text and select Weld. This will turn the overlapping text into one solid piece to be cut.
  4. Resave your file (the software does not automatically save; therefore, you have to routinely save).



  1. Click on the Cut Settings tool.
  2. In the Cut Settings window you can choose a variety of options, including Cut Style for Selected Shape (solid cut line or perforation), Material Type (ranging from fabric, paper, to vinyl sticker). Double-click on “Cardstock” from the materials list to select it as your choice.
  3. Scroll down the Cut Settings window to see the technical details of the Cardstock setting, which include what level to set the ratchet blade at (Level 1, 2, or 3) and the default settings for cutting speed, thickness of material, and advanced features.
  4. Connect the Silhouette Cameo cutting machine to the computer and check that the ratchet blade is set to the appropriate blade level. You can take the blade out and twist the bottom to point to the appropriate blade level then replace it into the machine by locking it in place.
  5. Check the Cutting Mat to ensure that it has the appropriate cardstock material securely in place. Place the cutting mat into the machine by aligning the edges of the mat under the rolling wheels. Alignment is important because the grid on the cutting mat corresponds with the grid in the software.
  6. Once you’ve checked the machine and cutting mat, go back to Silhouette Studio and select the Send to Silhouette tool. Click Start to send the digital design to the machine.


  • Consider welding the symbol and text together to create one solid piece.
  • Use the shape tools and weld feature to add interlocking embellishments to the design.
  • Use the shape tools to subtract from the design (Modify > Subtract).


  • Use the kirigami design as a stencil. Use non-aerosol fabric paint to stencil the design onto a t-shirt or use paint to stencil the design onto cardboard. Experiment with vellum as a reusable stencil.
  • Curve the kirigami design and tape the end to create a luminaria tea light holder.
  • Transform the kirigami into a mask and experiment with thin craft foam.
  • Write a persuasive narrative about why you chose the symbol and help others’ understand what it means to you.