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Engineering students try to become pinball wizards in this class

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Professor Michael Yip (left) tries one of the pinball machines his students built while student Louise Xu (left) looks on.
More pictures of the class' demo day here.

San Diego, Calif., July 7, 2016 -- The vaguely sweet smell of laser-etched wood. Repeated pings and the laughter of students. Pairs of students huddling over their projects, connecting wires and poking and prodding. This was the scene on a recent afternoon in the basement of Jacobs Hall here on campus.

The room was filled with students enrolled in ECE 115, a design and rapid prototyping class taught by electrical and computer engineering professor Michael Yip here at the University of California San Diego. Their task was to build functional pinball machines, from scratch, without using blueprints but instead iterating on several designs of their own making during the course’s 10 weeks. The students were preparing to show off the machines during an open house in the Jacobs Hall lobby.

The goal of the class was to give students experience with hands-on design and fabrication and teach them how to build practical hardware systems that combine both mechanics and electronics. Yip picked the pinball machines as a project both because they would be engaging but also because they would require students to master a wide range of skills. “You can’t just stick to the confines of one type of engineering,” he said. “To be a good engineer, you need to understand electrical and mechanical engineering as well as computer science and be able to bring it all together.”

Yip also wanted to make sure that students got to experience building a robotic system in a short amount of time. “The faster you can get things done, the faster you can fix your mistakes,” he said.

Yip taught students how to use motors, touch sensors and computer assisted software. Students 3D modeled their parts, created working computer-assisted designs for the machines, made from laser-cut and 3D printed parts. They created circuits to connect their sensors and actuators, which they then integrated into a microcontroller. They programmed the device to run the whole system.

Louise Xu, a freshman, and Anthony Simeonov, a sophomore, had built “Star Struck.” They both seemed to have learned the lessons Yip was trying to impart. “Good design takes many iterations,” Xu said. “You have to keep in mind the whole system,” said Simeonov. “You have to get frustrated and struggle through it. When you do that, it turns out a lot better.”

Andrew Saad and Leandro Lubrico, both juniors, had teamed up to create “Pinball of the Caribbean.” It was the first time they’d used a laser cutter and gotten any significant experience with computer-assisted design. Lubrico looked up spec sheets to learn more about the various parts they were using. They also concluded that laser cutting was much faster than 3D printing, Saad said. “Everything we learn about in classes without labs started to make sense,” he said.

ECE 115 is part of Experience Engineering Initiative, which aims to expose all undergraduate students to a hands-on or experiential engineering course or lab each and every year—starting freshman year. 

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Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899
ipatrin@ucsd.edu

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