Class Is in Session!
There’s Nothing Nutty About this Pinball-Loving Professor
Zach Fuchs, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Cincinnati, has been using pinball to teach a class. This semester, he’s added another and will be giving a presentation at this year’s Pinball Expo.
Like a lot of pinball endeavors, it all started when he picked up a machine – Stern’s Aerosmith – for his basement. He’d always had an interest in pinball and finally had the space for some machines. He got an Indiana Jones machine from an estate sale soon after, and an idea was born.
“When I was fixing that machine up, I realized it’s exactly what I teach for my mechatronics class,” Fuchs said. “It snowballed into this bigger project.”
His Introduction to Mechatronics course basically became a pinball course by spring 2020. The class “focuses on how to sense and interact with the world around us through the integration of microcontrollers, actuators, sensors and supporting electronics.”
He explains: “Each lesson, and corresponding lab, addresses a practical engineering topic as it applies to an element of a pinball machine. Over the course of the semester, the students increase the functionality of the cyber-physical system by adding new components each week while also writing the corresponding control code. For the final project, students combine everything together to implement a complete pinball controller and ruleset. Although the lessons are taught within the context of pinball, the topics are generally applicable to the broader embedded systems, automation and robotics industries and provide students with valuable hands-on experience in building and testing a real-world, cyber-physical system.
“A custom-designed pinball machine and a custom hierarchical, node-based electronics system were developed specifically for this course. The machine includes traditional pinball mechanisms, as well as novel actuators and sensors that are not typically used within pinball machines, in order to provide learning and lesson opportunities for their interface and control.”
For fall 2021, he’s developed a second course – this one part of the university’s honors program. Called “Pinball Design and Programming: The Art and Engineering of Mechatronic Storytelling,” it’s a general education course open to students from any degree program. The professor said he has about half engineering students, but also design majors, history majors and others.
Essentially, the goal of this class is for students to build a rudimentary pinball machine by the end of the semester. “The course goes beyond simply using technology to build a machine,” Fuchs detailed. “Instead, this course focuses on the fusion of multiple disciplines (engineering, computing, design and art) to create an integrated pinball experience that tells a story that is personally meaningful to the student designers.”
The course also includes guest lectures from pinball and arcade designers like Jersey Jack Pinball’s Eric Munier, who was there in early September discussing the Guns N’ Roses machine, walking students through how he integrated the theme with mechanics, code, ruleset, lights and more.
Professor Fuchs contacted Stern Pinball about his courses, and they donated damaged or flawed playfields for use in his class, plus flipper mechs, pop bumper mechs and other components.
He was able to purchase complete machines with a grant from the Ohio Department of Higher Education as part of a workforce development initiative. He also uses these machines for Air Force Research Lab-funded research, which aims to develop AI strategies for unknown and chaotic environments. Basically, he’s working to train AI to learn pinball.
Fuchs and his class will be up at Pinball Expo this month, displaying several machines built during the courses. The professor also has a presentation and will be taking the students on the Stern factory tour as well.