Hands-on Activity: Engineering Pop-Ups

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A children's castle pop-up book.
Students create pop-up books
Copyright © Flickr https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5198/6896999720_9cc1a50d71.jpg


Students learn about applied forces as they create pop-up-books — the art of paper engineering. They also learn the basic steps of the engineering design process.

Engineering Connection

Just like forces travel from your hand to move an object, engineers want forces to "travel" in their designs as well. For example, in the construction of buildings and bridges, engineers make sure the forces acting upon the structures (people, washing machines, trucks, wind, snow, etc.) will be safely transferred to foundations in the ground. During the engineering design process, they do this by adding up all the potential forces that could be applied to a structure and drawing free-body diagrams — drawings that help to visualize how forces act upon an object — to ensure that the structure will not collapse.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Define a force and identify several forces in their environment.
  • Understand how forces work in a pop-up book.
  • Use brainstorming as a means to generate ideas for a work of art.
  • Use the engineering design process to create a product for a client..

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • white printer paper (regular 8.5 x 11-inch size)
  • colored construction paper
  • scissors
  • pens
  • markers
  • rule

For the entire class to share:

  • several pop-up or movable books from the library or home
  • stapler (or needle and thread to stitch through several sheets of paper)
  • How to Make Tabs (attachment)
  • How to Make Flaps (attachment)


History of Paper Engineering (As modified from University of Northern Texas)

Have you ever read a pop-up book? How do they work? When were they invented?

The first movable books were created for educational purposes as early as the 15th century, almost 500 years ago! One of the first books was an anatomy book that used flaps for each layer of the human body. This book was created in 1553 by Andreas Vesalius. People start creating movable books for recreational purposes hundreds of years later. This time, the books used flaps to reveal different adventure scenes in a story.

During the 19th century, the London publishing house of S. & J. Fuller mass-produced the first paper dolls. Lotha Meggendorfer, a German artist created the first multiple and simultaneously moving parts book. He used an intricate system of copper wires and paper tabs to create this effect. Three-dimensional books, in which the images stood up from the pages, were created after 1929.

Engineers and artists think about forces when designing or building something. What is a force? (Answer: A push or pull on an object.) Not all forces occur naturally like wind and gravity. People can create forces using energy that originates from the food they eat. This occurs when we push someone on a swing, use our feet to push a skateboard or pull someone in a wagon. When we read pop-up books we apply very small forces (pushes or pulls) to tabs and flaps to make them move.

Engineers and artists take into consideration the impact of manmade forces on an object they design, as well as natural ones. For example, is it important for an engineer to consider the impact of the accumulated weight of many people as they walk across a floor on the second story of a building? Even the smallest forces need to be taken into account. Any push or pull that affects the balance of a structure, large or small, must be thought about by engineers and artists during the design and creation process. In making pop-up or moving books, the creators are called "paper engineers."

The Engineering Design Process

Engineers design and build all types of structures, systems and products that are important in our everyday lives. The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineering teams use to guide them as they solve problems:

  1. Understand the need: What is the problem? What do I want to do? What are the project requirements? What are the limitations? Who is the customer? What is the goal? Gather information and research what others have done.
  2. Brainstorm and design: Imagine and brainstorm ideas. Be creative. Investigate existing technologies and methods to use. Explore, compare and analyze many possible solutions. Select the most promising idea.
  3. Plan: Draw a diagram of your idea. How will it work? What materials and tools are needed? How will you test it to make sure it works?
  4. Create: Assign team tasks. Build a prototype. Does it work? Talk about what works, what doesn't and what could work better.
  5. Improve: Talk about how you could improve your end product. Make revisions. Draw new designs. Make your product the best it can be.

Engineers use their science and math knowledge to explore all possible options and compare many design ideas. This is called open-ended design because when you start to solve a problem, you don't know what the best solution will be. The process is cyclical and may begin at, and return to, any step.

The use of prototypes, or early versions of the design (or a model or mock-up) helps the design process by improving the understanding of the problem, identifying missing requirements, evaluating design objectives and product features, and getting feedback from others.

Engineers select the solution that best uses the available resources and best meets the project's requirements. They consider many factors: Cost to make and use, quality, reliability, safety, functionality, ease of use, aesthetics, ethics, social impact, maintainability, testability, manufacturability.

In this activity (or the next time you decide to design/build something from scratch) think about the engineering design process. It helps you think through all aspects of a problem to find a good solution.


brainstorming: A method of shared problem solving in which all members of a group quickly and spontaneously contribute many ideas.

design: To plan out in systematic, often graphic form. To create for a particular purpose or effect. Design a building.

engineering design: The process of devising a system, component or process to meet desired needs. (Source: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc.)

engineering design process: A decision-making process used by engineers. Combines an understanding of basic sciences, mathematics and engineering sciences to use available resources (material, people) to meet a desired goal, usually resulting in a product or system. (Source: The Design Process, Micron Technology, Inc., http://www.micron.com/students/engineer/design.html)

force: A push or a pull on an object.

kinetic: Of, relating to, or produced by motion.

mock-up: A layout of printed matter, used for demonstration, study or testing.

prototype: A first attempt or early model of a new product or creation. May be revised many times.


This activity is suggested to take place during two, one-hour class periods on two different days. Day 1 is for research, writing, drawing, brainstorming, planning and organizing. Day 2 is for construction of the pop-up book.

Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and bring to class example pop-up books from the library or home.
  • Divide the class into teams of two students each.
  • Student research. Have the student teams browse through the pop-up books, paying careful attention to why and how parts of the book move, and where the forces are applied.
  • The process. Write on the board the main steps in the engineering design process, and discuss with the students.

With the Students

  1. On Day 1, start a discussion about pop-up books by asking if anyone has read a pop-up book. Do you know how they work? Take guesses on when they were first invented. (Answer: 500 years ago.)
  2. Information gathering. List on the board all the different design techniques found in the example pop-up books. (Possible techniques: Revolving disks, push/pull tabs, lifts/flaps.) Also note that some books create movement only by the reader moving a disk, tab or flap, while others move simply with the motion of turning a page.
  3. Understand the science. Review with the students how the forces travel from the student's hands along the tabs or through the book pages to cause movement. It may be helpful to draw arrows that represent these forces on the board (see Figure 1).

A drawing of a hand and an arrow pointing towards an image of a lion.
Figure 1. A gentle force with a hand causes movement in a pop-up book.
Copyright © 2004 Natalie Mach, using Microsoft Corp. clip art. ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

  1. With the remaining class time, have the student teams write a short story that they will illustrate in their pop-up book. Decide if the book will be a simple children's story created for a child they know, or perhaps a comic book designed for themselves. The story length can be five sentences to five pages. Remind students that some books have no words or very few words; paper engineers design books so the pictures (illustrations and movement) tell the story.
  2. An important part of the engineering design process is creating a diagram of your design. This step helps make the project real so decisions can be made and refined for a better end product. Have the students divide their story into approximately five pages, and draw rough sketches (words and pictures) to lay out each page.
  3. Brainstorming is important in the engineering design process. Working in a team helps everyone come up with creative ideas. Have the students brainstorm unique ways to make their pictures move. Which illustrations will move? In what way? What movement(s) help to tell the story best? Find ideas in the example pop-up books and talk with other students about possible ideas. Brainstorm creative and silly ideas that use the materials available.
  4. Planning ahead is a very important part of the engineering design process. Why? (Answers: It helps with the collection of materials, prevents the wasting of materials, saves time during the construction phase, and keeps projects organized so other people can understand what is going on.) Have the students plan how they will make some of their illustrations move. What will be on the page background? What will be on the flap or tabs? What will be the tab/flap shapes? Where will be the folds? How will the moving pieces be attached? Practice with a prototype (or mock-up), until it works the way you want. Use the suggestions provided in the How to Make Tabs and How to Make Flaps attachments.
  5. On Day 2, continue with the pop-up book making process. After the students have shown they have a good grasp on how they want to complete their project, they can begin the construction phase.
  6. Share the construction tasks among the team members. The first step is to create the base pages of the book. Have each student team figure out how many pieces of paper they need based on the number of finished pages in their book when the 8.5 x 11" paper is folded in half. Plan to include a cover page and a title page. For instance if a story is six pages long, the team needs three pieces of copy paper for the story, one piece for the title page and one piece of colored construction paper for the cover.
  7. Have students stack their book page papers, placing the construction piece on the bottom (see Figure 2).
  8. Next, have students fold the stack of papers in half so that the construction paper is on the outside, creating a front and back cover (see Figure 2).

Sketch of an open-faced book made by a few sheets of paper, with construction paper on the bottom and binding with staples or stitching located vertically in the fold of the pages.
Figure 2. Construction details for the pop-up book.
Copyright © 2004 Natalie Mach, using Microsoft Corp. clip art. ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

  1. To make a binding, either staple the fold of the book, or use a needle and thread to stitch the pages together (see Figure 2).
  2. Next, the students may proceed to add the story, illustrations and moving parts to the blank book. Create a title page that includes the components found on the title page of other books (title, author(s), illustrator(s), location, date).
  3. When all students have completed their books, have each team present them to the class. They should be able to describe the type of forces that cause their book parts to move. Discuss the creative ideas used in the pop-up books. Do they function well? Do they have any ideas for improvement? Who is the end user of their book? How did the steps of the engineering design process work for your team? Deliver the pop-up books to younger students and see how they are received.


Safety Issues

  • Students should be careful when handling scissors.
  • If needle and thread are used, students should be careful when handling the needles.

Troubleshooting Tips

Since some students get frustrated coming up with their own designs, it may be helpful to check out some "how-to make your own pop-up books" from the library or search the Internet for helpful ideas to supply to students. See the Reference section for some book suggestions.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Ask the students and discuss as a class:

  • Who has read a pop-up book? (Show of hands.)
  • How do pop-up books work? (Examine carefully.)
  • When were pop-up books invented? (Answer: Almost 500 years ago.)
  • How do forces cause movement in a pop-up book? (Review with the students the forces that cause movement. It may be helpful to draw on the board arrows that represent these forces.)
  • How might a "paper engineer" go about designing a pop-up book? What steps? (Review the engineering design process steps.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have the students engage in open discussion to come up with unique ways to make their book illustrations move. Remind students that engineers use brainstorming all the time to come up with great ideas. In brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. List their ideas on the board so they can refer to them as the teams plan their books.

Critical Thinking: Ask the students to think about the constraints of the problem. What is limiting them? Do the types of materials matter? Would they prefer something else? How about time? Could they have used more? Remind them that the books should function. Are some movements (sliding, spinning of "paper puppets") more difficult than others?

Post-Activity Assessment

Presentation: When all the student teams have completed their pop-up books, have them present to the class. They should be able to explain the path that a force takes to cause their books to move. Have students comment on: Who is the end-user of their book? How did they select the pop-up ideas they used? How well do the pop-ups function? Do they have any ideas for improvement? How did using the steps of the engineering design process work for their team?

Recap Questions: As a class, ask students to review with you the steps in the engineering design process. (Answers: Understand the need, brainstorm and design, plan, create, improve. See details in the Introduction/Motivation section.)

Activity Extensions

Ask the students where else engineers want forces to "travel." For example, in the construction of buildings and bridges, engineers want to make sure the forces (people, desks, cars, snow, wind, weight of the walls and roof, etc.) can be safely transferred to solid foundations. They do this by adding up all the potential forces that could be applied to a structure and drawing free-body diagrams — drawings that help visualize how forces act upon an object, This method helps engineers design structures that do not collapse under the impact of many forces. Ask students to research free-body diagrams on the Internet and report back to class with an example.

Have the student research the history of pop-up books and write a one-page paper.

Have the students brainstorm about other art forms that use moving pieces. For homework, have them create a piece of moving art, and explain which forces make it move and why.

Invite a "paper engineer" to speak to your class.

Activity Scaling

  • For younger students (grades 3-4), print out instructions from one of the how-to books and stick to simpler flap designs.


Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed February 9, 2005. (Source of vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) http://www.dictionary.com
Engineering, Is It You? The Design Process. Micron Technology, Inc.. Accessed February 8, 2005. http://www.micron.com/students/engineer/design.html
Hiner, Mark. Paper Engineering for Pop-Up Books and Cards. Stradbroke. Diss. Norfolk, England: Tarquin Publications, 1986.
Hiner, Mark. Pop-up Books and Paper Engineering. Updated 2002. Mark Hiner, Paper Engineer. Accessed February 8, 2005. (Great resource) http://www.markhiner.co.uk/
Irvine, Joan. How to Make Pop-Ups. Illustrated by Barbara Reid. Toronto, Canada: Kids Can Press, 1987 or New York, NY: William Morrow & Co, 1988. Also see Joan Irvine Children's Books at http://www.makersgallery.com/joanirvine/books.html
Jackson, Paul. The Pop-Up Book: Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating Over 100 Original Paper Projects. New York, NY: Owl Books, 1994.
Montanaro, Ann. A Concise History of Pop-up and Movable Books. Updated 2004. The POP-UP World of Ann Montanaro, Rutgers University Libraries, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Accessed April 1, 2004. (A World Wide Web exhibition that includes images an amazing pop-up book collection) http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/rul/libs/scua/montanar/p-intro.htm
Pop-up and Movable Books: A Tour through Their History, Introduction: A Brief History of Early Movable Books. University of Northern Texas Libraries. Accessed February 8, 2005. http://www.library.unt.edu/rarebooks/exhibits/popup2/introduction.htm


Natalie Mach; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.