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OrigaMIT draws young, old from around US

From sciences to art, origami folds many ways

Michelle Fung lent her expertise to Graham Stearns (left) and Cole Eppling as they created yellow jackets at OrigaMIT.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Michelle Fung lent her expertise to Graham Stearns (left) and Cole Eppling as they created yellow jackets at OrigaMIT.

CAMBRIDGE — Teens and children chatted about quantum physics and insect physiology while creating detailed paper yellow jackets. Professors leveraged origami principles into studies of human proteins and robotics. Intricate paper masterpieces peppered the MIT student center main convention hall.

“People hear origami and think it’s this craft that kids do,” said Jason Ku, former president of MIT’s origami club, OrigaMIT. “When they hear it’s coming from MIT, they take it a little more seriously.”

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The fourth annual OrigaMIT convention Saturday brought in origami artists from across the country to display their creations and teach attendees to create sculptures from squares of paper.

Yongquan “YQ” Lu, president of OrigaMIT, was delighted by this year’s turnout. The 23-year-old MIT junior said about 200 people attended the convention, while the past few years hovered attendance between 130 and 150 attendees.

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Saturday’s convention featured renowned origami artists Chris Palmer and Joseph Wu as special guests, both of whom taught folding classes at the convention.

The annual event is the club’s largest of the year, though the club meets every Sunday in smaller sessions.

“The thing that I love about being part of the club is the outreach that we do,” Lu said. Many of the same people attend the free gatherings week-to-week, and “we help to build the community,” he said.

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In a three-hour complex morning class taught by Michelle Fung, 23, the seven students folding Fung’s original design, “Rocky the Yellowjacket,” were between 10 and 17 years old.

Fung teaches many “young, enthusiastic folders,” she said. “A lot of them could give adults a run for their money.”

Hers was one of 38 classes and six lectures offered during the day. The courses range in difficulty using designs such as sailboats, tulips, and tessellated skulls.

Mark Kennedy, 64, taught students how to make a duckling.

“A lot of the kids are better than the adults,” he said. “They look at things fresh and don’t know they’re supposed to be scared of it.”

He started folding origami, he said, “when John F. Kennedy was elected . . . in November of 1960.” PBS’s predecessor, the National Educational Television had begun an eight-week course on paper-folding, Kennedy said.

He said he leaves dollar bills folded into butterflies and dolphins for tips in restaurants. Some waitresses said they wait until they are down to their last few dollars before disassembling the tiny animals, he said.

Origami has applications outside of creating paper sculptures, Ku said. The 27-year-old was president of OrigaMIT from the beginning of his undergraduate career. He has since earned a master’s at MIT and now is working on a doctorate in origami-related research. He stepped down as club president three years ago after starting the convention.

Traditional origami can useful for “building insight at the very least,” said Erik Demaine, an MIT computer science professor and faculty adviser for OrigaMIT. Demaine incorporates the paper-folding principles into classes on origami science, math, and algorithms.

If origami is considered in terms of reconfiguring 3-D structures, the concepts have uses in fields including biology and robotics.

“[Working with] physical paper sure gives you a lot of insight into how these problems are worked out [in reality],” he said.

Later in the morning, John Hargrave, 45, praised the inter-generational nature of the origami conventions. He gestured at Kennedy folding paper with a young boy.

“Older folks want to teach the younger folks,” Hargrave said, standing next to his wife, Jade, 45, and their sons, 13-year-old Isaac and 8-year-old Luke. “Age doesn’t matter, in a way.”

The Hargraves come from Sherborn to attend OrigaMIT each year, sometimes visiting another convention if they are able.

Isaac has been folding origami for half his life. When origami artist Michael LaFosse visited Isaac’s Montessori school about six years ago, he was instantly hooked. He found that paper folding was a great help to him in understanding classroom geometry.

Looking at the array of origami creations that would be taught through the day, Isaac guessed that he could fold most of them with the help of an instructor.

Meanwhile, Luke stared at a twisting, white paper dragon on an exhibition table.

“I wouldn’t even think a human can make this,” he said.

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@globe.com.
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