Pinball Wizard: Ramping Up The Study of Energy

By: Latosha Glass, Sarah Wallace, and Sue Williamson


In December of 2017 the SCOPES-DF team met in Boston, MA and gave its teacher-members a long awaited opportunity to meet, learn and make.  Teachers from MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio and STEM School Chattanooga in Tennessee spent three days getting to know each other, learning about best practices and challenging each other to push our thinking around what FAB looks like in our schools and how we can help grow the SCOPES-DF community. 


Teachers, administrators and SCOPES-DF team members worked in small teams to analyze a lesson and think about how it could be ‘remixed’.  Our team consisted of LaTosha Glass, Assistant Principal at MC2 High School, Sue Williamson, Math Teacher at STEM CHATT and Sarah Prendergast Wallace, Mobile Fab Lab Coordinator at MC2.   This group was an excellent mix of pedagogical styles and comfort level with all things Fab.

Our group examined the Pinball Machine lesson, which can be seen in its original format here.  Our group was excited by the possibility of seeing what students were capable of making with this classic toy and were left thinking about timing, appropriate tool usage, how to incorporate multidisciplinary teaching and differentiation.

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Let’s begin by thinking a little about differentiation.  By definition, differentiation is the act of changing or altering something. In teacher terms we know this to mean changing a lesson or part of a lesson to better fit the needs of specific groups of students.   In a Math class this might mean making 3 different versions of the same worksheet to fit lower, middle and higher ability students, or in English, assigning different books over the same content for different levels of readers.  When thinking about FAB projects we got to thinking about two important levels of differentiation. The first is more of the traditional sense- how can these lessons be differentiated for students with different ability levels, both with FAB skills and content-specific skills. Of course, a math teacher can think about how to differentiate the math skills or the social studies teacher for the social studies skills, but what about FAB?   How can we differentiate a lesson to help students who may be struggling with the ability to use the design process, thinking creatively or use a machine properly? This is a challenge. Our group spoke about the importance of scaffolding. Differentiation in the traditional sense might not be feasible with an engineering project, but scaffolding certainly is within the project and within the course.

This leads us to the second type of differentiation when it comes to FAB projects- differentiation for the teacher.  As teachers, we spend hours of our time making sure each lesson is crafted to fit the needs of each of our students, but the first step in that is making sure we find a lesson that fits our needs!  Finding a lesson that not only fits our individual style of teaching, but also meets the mission of the school, is accessible for our students, and is at the proper technology level, can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. This is why so many teachers spend all of their time reinventing the wheel by creating lessons from scratch.  With this in mind our group thought about how we can differentiate the SCOPES-DF lessons for teachers who are expert FABBERS or are just beginning the journey with digi-fab in the classroom. We struggled with how to make a lesson that clearly uses the laser machine on an ‘intro’ lesson for teachers who are not comfortable with that technology, instead we  looked through the Educator Experience levels and found lessons that would be more appropriate for less experienced teachers.

When thinking about a FAB lesson, or any lesson for that matter, timing is crucial.   We have all taught lessons that looked great on paper and yet our students breezed through the content and we are left with twenty minutes at the end of class  having an impromptu discussion or throwing together some sort of challenge problem. Or worse, when we have alotted four class periods for a unit or project and after day two we know that the students will never be done on time and we will have to re-evaluate our course planning document.  


The timing for the initial lesson was set for 2 hours.  Going through the lesson initially our group struggled with that short of a timeline. We felt that maybe a week (5 class hours) or even more would be a more appropriate time schedule. This brought us back to how we can differentiate in a FAB classroom and the idea of scaffolding.   While we do not think any teacher can walk into any classroom and have students complete this lesson from start to finish in two hours, we are sure that with proper scaffolding over the course of a quarter or a semester that eventually students would be able to complete this work in two class periods.  Many elementary school teachers often talk about the importance of ‘training’ their students with classroom procedures and common methods for problem solving or writing. We think that this sort of strict training is necessary in FAB classrooms. Students need to learn how to use the design process, think creatively and most importantly, learn the proper and safe way to operate the machines.


The short timing of the original lesson also did not leave room for iteration on their designs.   The design process is such a large part of engineering,  it would be interesting for students to  test their flippers and launchers, redesign and fabricate to improve performance. The ability to test multiple iterations of a design reinforces the engineer design process and  would give students the chance to refine their product.


Our group also spent significant time discussing appropriate tool usage in the Fab Lab. Each digital fabrication machine can be used for different types of projects and it’s important for FAB instructors to use the appropriate tool for each project.  With this in mind, along with the two hour time window, we thought that having students design the main parts of their pinball machine with a CAD software and laser cut out the pieces was not the best use of time. Instead, we thought students could plan out and cut out their cardboard pieces using a box cutter and then incorporate digital fabrication by 3D designing obstacles for their pinball machine to be printed out or to create side decorations for their game that could be created using the vinyl cutter.

We talked a lot about how to incorporate more content into this lesson.  Focusing on a multidisciplinary approach we thought that a teacher, no matter their licensure, could touch on multiple subjects and topics including the history of pinball, the design and artistry of the machines, and the math and physics of an inclined plane. The inclined plane of the pinball machine is the playing field.  The lesson currently focuses on the varying speed of the ball as it descends to the bottom of the field. An additional opportunity could include integrating Algebra with a discussion of slope as it relates to the plane. Students could calculate varying slopes, test them and determine what they consider to be the best slope to ensure optimal game play. Pinball is frustrating and less fun if it’s difficult to keep the ball in the field.  A possible extension would be to have students design and fabricate the deflectors that help keep the ball from going out of game play. Deflectors, which are positioned to the left and right of the flippers act to redirect balls from taking a straight path from the top of the playing field to the ball catchers. Deflectors are typically right triangles which could provide an opportunity to incorporate a discussion of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Sarah Tosha Sue.jpg

Finally, we spoke about extensions for the lesson.  The MC2 teachers were thinking more in terms of a quarter long, ten week project, and thus thought about different ways to incorporate other FAB machines, disciplines and content. Lights and sounds are integral to a pinball machine to make the game more entertaining not only for the players, but those who are watching. To support the study of electrical circuits, it would be interesting for students to create a circuit for their game. This could be accomplished using an Arduino or other available materials. We also thought that while a cardboard prototype could be created using a box cutter and hot glue, students could then iterate on their designs and create a small wooden version using the laser and possibly a larger scale of their designs using the shopbot.


Overall, we love the idea of having students connect engineering, art, math, and physics to create their own pinball machine and would love to see what students could come up with! We feel that this could lead to a wonderful Pinball Competition amongst high school students around the country!  The opportunity for students to present their designs to real pinball machine designers would add a value experience to the project as well as give students the opportunity to present and feel proud of their work.

Our Pinball Remix may have turned a one day challenge into a multi-week experience for students, but our team thought of this as an opportunity and not a challenge. How much stronger are our lessons when they persist? How much more do we learn when we dig deeper? Ultimately, we are not just adding digital fabrication to lessons, but rather, we are creating opportunities to take our students on deep and purposeful journeys!

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Catapulting Into Digital Fabrication



2018 is the year that I have challenged myself to incorporate digital fabrication in my classroom units of study. I have walked past the Fab Lab in my school for the past three years, peeking in the door, continually amazed by the exceptional and creative work being produced by students. I have been even more impressed by the enthusiasm of our students. I observed those who sat silently in my Algebra 1 or Geometry class come alive in a hands-on work space, innovating and using skills I imagined they had but couldn’t tap into. Previously, a professional development opportunity gave me a cursory preview of digital fab tools. However, I was reluctant to try out all that digital fabrication has to offer until now.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a central focus at STEM School Chattanooga, so I have cross-curricular support and input from my team of teachers. Last year, our students were supported in their study of quadratic functions and Newton’s Laws by building trebuchets or catapults. They had a great time and built some interesting devices. However, as teachers, we wondered how deeply they understood the math and physics associated with their designs. This year, the goal is to teach students to use digital fabrication to better illustrate the engineering design process that allows for multiple iterations in prototyping. Access to design software, a laser cutter, and a 3D carving machine or "Carvey" enables our students to make adjustments to their launching device with better precision. It gives them better insight into the effect of the math and physics used in determining the trajectory of their launched object. This could be accomplished as a project in either a math or science class.

As a part of the SCOPES-DF cohort, not only am I tasked with incorporating digital fabrication in my own classes, but I'm also brainstorming ways to make it more accessible for all classroom teachers. In this regard, I have tried to identify the barriers that were holding me back and what I could do to overcome them. My biggest concerns were not personally knowing how to use all of the fabrication tools and which would be most useful for each of my project ideas. I teach 9th graders who mostly have not used the technology either, so how could I juggle teaching course material while providing them the needed time to learn how to use the tools?  Also, I was uncertain of how much time is necessary for successful implementation and how to balance that with the need to address all of my course standards.

Rather than just jumping into the project with 80 students, I chose six who had shown an interest in the fab lab and asked them to complete each step of the lesson, from learning to use design software to building a final product with a CNC ShopBot.  The benefit to using a small group was twofold; I could troubleshoot problems I probably wouldn’t have considered, and I had a group of experts who could provide technical assistance to their classmates. As we begin this project, I have included some reflections from my student experts. Like them, I can’t wait to watch this project evolve!

Lili and Eron

First, we started off by using Tinkercad, an online 3D modeling software that helps you make a digital model of the object you are trying to make. After a few attempts at creating an adequate model, we finally had one that would suffice. We built the side supports using two triangles. We created these using the Carvey with a strong cardboard type material. We used a straw to connect the two sides together. Also, we laser cut an acrylic stick for the payload to hang from. Our prototype was almost finished, the only part we did not complete was attaching the weights and the sling.

Nelly and  Eron

When we were assigned the task we got a piece of paper so we could write down our ideas and sketch out a tiny model. During the thought process we wanted to include as many variables as possible so that we could make it more precise. After that we collected materials to build the catapult. The tools we used were the laser cutter, table saw, and drill. The materials we used were wood, acrylic, a spring and a string. We  thought it was actually fun although we did run into a couple of problems (like not finishing), but overall it was a good experience. 

Fab LAb 2.JPG

Rachel and Lili

After being assigned to make the final product, Rachel and I decided to build a trebuchet based on our prototype. We went back to Tinkercad and improved our prototype. Then, we ran into the problem that we could not transfer our design in Tinkercad as an SVG to the laser cutter, so we had to bring the file over to Inkscape, another 3D modeling software, and then import them to the laser cutter. After transferring our model to the laser cutter, we cut out all of our pieces and glued them together. Since we had our base done we moved on to the sling. Our sling was made of duct tape and was attached to our base with string. Once finished with the sling, we added washers to the opposite side of the sling. When done with the trebuchet, we put in the ping pong ball and tested it out. Looking back on this and seeing what we did, we agree that we should continue to work on a better sling, but the overall end product was effective and functional. 


Andrew and Alec

Initially, when we were assigned to build either a catapult or a trebuchet, we discussed what would be best. We decided to make a semi-detailed design on Notability. Then, we spent time finding resources, like wood and PVC, that best fit our design. We cut some wood but ran into problems with the material. Some of the wood we used kept splitting where we drilled holes. Also, we had to braid string so that it would be able to withstand a spring. Reflecting on our challenges, there were better ways of accomplishing some parts of our catapult. For example, we could have positioned our spring mechanism better, allowing it to work more effectively. In the given time and the issues encountered along the way, our end model was able to fire a ping pong ball about 10 feet. We had an exceptional experience and hope to have an opportunity like this again!

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'Wrinkling Time' Through ELA, Geometry & Digital Fab

By Nettrice Gaskins, Kimberly Stanley and Zachary Wenz

 Image of Pythagoras and tesseracts remixed using Deep Dream Generator.

Image of Pythagoras and tesseracts remixed using Deep Dream Generator.


During the 2017 SCOPES-DF Cohort Launch in Waltham, MA, participants were tasked with taking an existing lesson from the SCOPES-DF website, and making small improvements, adaptations, or extensions to that lesson and demonstrating the use of a digital fabrication process by making a simple artifact that reflects the improvement. Our team consisted of a SCOPES-DF team member Nettrice Gaskins, Kimberly Stanley, English teacher at STEM High School in Chattanooga, TN, and Zachary Wenz, Math teacher at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, OH. We were assigned the GeoConstructix lesson plan from the website.

  Photo © Stan Rowin

Photo © Stan Rowin

A Wrinkle in Time: STEM & Digital Fabrication in Popular Culture kicked off our discussion about the connections between English Language Arts, or ELA, mathematics and digital fabrication. In summary, the overarching theme "wrinkling time” can be explored through geometry and tensegrity, which is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension. Additionally, the main concept of time portals deals with vectors, which are geometric shapes that have both a magnitude and a direction. With vectors we were able to define operations such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication by scalars. This was the entry point for our discussion about how to remix GeoConstructix, a lesson dealing with similar concepts as tensegrity.

 Student exploring tensegrity and a tesseract (time portal) in math class at Boston Arts Academy. Photo courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

Student exploring tensegrity and a tesseract (time portal) in math class at Boston Arts Academy. Photo courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

GeoConstructix adapts digital fabrication concepts by focusing on the inter-relationship between geometry and computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) techniques. The lesson’s scaffolding structure allows students to work with a series of successive methods-based exercises that rely on both digital modeling and prototypes. By remixing this lesson, the team opened up more possibilities for exploration of general themes and concepts.

What is a “remix”?

Remix culture allows and encourages derivative works by combining or editing existing materials to produce a new creative work or product. The best examples of this kind of creative work are often marked by a reframing of the original narrative, and so produce a fresh perspective on both the source material and the context in which it first existed. Remixing, as a cultural practice has origins in hip hop through DJing or the live rearranging of pre-recorded music material to new compositions, and sampling or taking a portion of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song.

 Drawing a Sierpinski Triangle with Scratch.

Drawing a Sierpinski Triangle with Scratch.

MIT Media Lab’s Scratch programming platform let users remix blocks of code to create their own interactive stories, games and animations. Scratching is a technique used by DJs to remix music and produce different sound effects by manipulating vinyl records on a turntable. Scratch programming takes its name from this technique, as it lets users mix together different media in creative ways. We can use methods such as remixing, sampling, and scratching when developing lessons across academic subjects.

Using the novel "A Wrinkle in Time" and other books is a great way to connect literature to STEM subjects and digital fabrication. By reading stories or books we can identify themes that cross over into other areas. "A Wrinkle in Time" provides a base for creating innovative digital fabrication projects. The next steps include remixing relevant concepts and themes using vector shapes, vector editing software and laser cutting.

Remixing GeoConstructix: A Beginning

Kimberly Stanley (STEM CHAT) had new ideas for English/ELA. As someone who has been trying to implement Digital Fabrication into her classroom, this lesson really helped her see how this can happen without causing someone a tremendous amount of stress! Not only did she see the connection with "A Wrinkle in Time", she also saw this as an opportunity to utilize this same lesson with almost any novel/short story and the artifact could represent a time machine or portal to another world. Her students could then design their artifact to represent the time period or world they would be entering.  Kimberly also saw multiple writing opportunities for the students as they collaborated with others to complete this project.

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Zachary Wenz (MC2), made some connections to what he is teaching, specifically using right triangles and trigonometry (Geometry). In the design of time portals students could prove theorems about triangles to including exploring how a line parallel to one side of a triangle divides the other two proportionally, and conversely; the Pythagorean Theorem proves the use of triangle similarity.

 Students can use the properties of similarity transformations to establish the criterion for two triangles to be similar.

Students can use the properties of similarity transformations to establish the criterion for two triangles to be similar.

By the end of the GeoConstructix lesson, students will have learned the fundamentals of geometry and fabrication techniques with increasing levels of complexity. Students will use properties of similarity transformations and solve theorems and work out equations related to vector shapes such as triangles. In addition to geometric principles, we discussed tensegrity, specifically as a way to compress and expand a triangle or fractal-based structure to illustrate "wrinkling time."

 Students can solve theorems and work out equations related to triangles.

Students can solve theorems and work out equations related to triangles.

 Creating triangles using vector editing software.

Creating triangles using vector editing software.

Based on Zach’s suggestions our group created dozens of right and equilateral triangles using a vector graphics software with the aim of laser cutting them to create a fractal-based time portal. Vector programs such as Inkscape or Illustrator allows users to compose and edit vector graphics images and save them in one of many vector graphics formats, such as EPS, PDF, WMF, SVG, or VML.

Laser Cutting the Vector Shapes

Once the right and equilateral triangles were drawn in Illustrator, we used the correct specifications to prepare the file for laser cutting (ex. stroke/line .001 thickness). A typical commercial laser for cutting materials involves a control system (software) to generate the pattern to be cut from the material. In our case, we used a cardboard sheet. The focused laser beam is directed at the cardboard, which then burns away the lines, leaving straight edges.

  Photos © Stan Rowin .

Photos © Stan Rowin

Wrinkling Time in Real Time

Madeline L’Engle, author of “A Wrinkle in Time,” studied Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the book, L’Engle gives readers a peak at time travel without the mind-boggling concepts of advanced math. The 2018 film will likely give teachers and students new ideas for exploration. In addition to reading the book, or watching the film teachers can use GeoConstructix. Further, to understand "wrinkling time" teachers can instruct students to use their time portals to imagine the present at one end and the future at the other. By compressing or pressing down the structure the present touches the future creating a fifth dimension, or a tesseract, as it is referred to in L’Engle's book, as a wrinkle in time in real time.

 Fractal-based time portal made up of triangles

Fractal-based time portal made up of triangles

To summarize, GeoConstructix can be used to build geometric paper or cardboard time portals. As we explored in our group. this project can be used as a tool to help students read and learn the fundamentals of geometry and science. Students can build on this project to explore more esoteric concepts such as tensegrity and time travel. Although our team ran out of time before we could construct our own fractal-based time portal we did talk about ways in which students might construct one using these cross-cutting concepts. 

Behind The Mask: A Community Practice in Action

I sat at the back of the SolidWorks 3D Experience Lab in Waltham, Massachusetts and watched as an oversized laser cutter engraved snowflakes into a thin sheet of metal. Flames ignited as a tiny laser beam cut its way into the molten metal that was flat on the grid. Next to this, I sat with my group. We struggled with the small Epilog laser cutter that was a quarter of the size, fighting with the right measurements to be able to cut a flattened cube into a thick piece of card stock. SCOPES-DF Master Fabricator, Daniel Smithwick, and SCOPES-DF consultant educator, Melvin LaPrade sat to my left. Melvin, absorbing the process, and Dan, tinkering with the laser settings, understanding what all master fabricators know – every machine is different and has a mind of its own. Just like students, we had to find an entry point to connect as a group before we could begin working together.

A Wrinkle in Time: STEM & Digital Fabrication in Popular Culture

“A Wrinkle in Time” is an upcoming American science fantasy adventure film directed by Ava DuVernay from a screenplay written by Jennifer Lee, and based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle. Several concepts from the book and film connect to STEM subjects, even digital fabrication practices.