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OrigaMIT club knows when to fold 'em

Sophomore Kathy Lin shows a pair of origami elephants she made.
Sophomore Kathy Lin shows a pair of origami elephants she made.
Photo courtesy / Office of the Arts

What they really want to make is a beaver.

The members of OrigaMIT (the Origami Club at MIT) are meeting to brainstorm about a group piece to create and display in the upcoming Student Origami Exhibit. "We need a theme. How about insects?" someone suggests. "We should make a T-rex!" proposes another member. Erik Demaine, the club's faculty advisor, whips out a tiny computer and starts scouring the Internet for ideas.

"There are so many animals in this book, but no beavers," laments sophomore Yelena Tsitkin as she flips through one of many origami books strewn across the table.

The members begin busily folding "hyperbolic parabolas," which are far less complicated than they sound. These little building blocks of origami can be hooked together to create all sorts of fantastic creatures.

The members of OrigaMIT are busy people. For most of them, folding origami provides a relaxing distraction from problem sets. Members admit that they usually fold origami late at night when they should be doing their classwork.

But for some members, origami is a part of their work. The discoveries of Demaine, an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science, led to an interdisciplinary field of science called computational origami.

Demaine, and his father Martin, a visiting scientist, have reached beyond the artistry of origami. "Origami saves lives," Martin Demaine said. "It's very powerful." The fundamentals of origami have been used to create everything from a better airbag to a more compact stent--a tiny, expandable tube used to keep arteries open after heart surgery.

Erik Demaine has been using his knowledge of algorithms to assist Robert J. Lang, one of the leading origami artist/scientists, to create a new computer program called TreeMaker. This program will be used to create "very general designs" for origami. There are already a few computer programs for designing origami, but "most of origami exists in the real world," Demaine noted.

By the meeting's end, the table is littered with hyperbolic parabolas, but the students haven't succeeded in creating their beaver. They have, however, made several other small and delightful paper objects. Kathy Lin, a sophomore in political science, creates two diminutive elephants, one pink and one blue.

Tsitkin has, in record speed, made a number of small "flipping frogs." These sprightly paper creatures were what first endeared her to origami as a child. The frogs are designed to flip through the air when pressed and released. As she folds, she reflects on the "hours of entertainment" she has enjoyed over the years from small pieces of paper.

The original OrigaMIT folded in 1997, but a group of enthusiasts met at the student origami exhibit last year. "We decided to have regular meetings to exchange ideas," said club president Wes A. Watters, a graduate student in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences. And so, OrigaMIT was reactivated last May.

OrigaMIT has an e-mail listserv of about 50 people; anyone may subscribe by e-mailing The club meets twice a month on Tuesday evenings and provides a relaxed and fun atmosphere for paper folders of all levels. For more details, visit

This year's student origami exhibit, sponsored by the MIT Office of the Arts, will be on display in Wiesner Gallery from March 5-19.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 3, 2004.

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