What?!? No plan? No Directions? …what if we just play?

Isn’t that what summer is for? So, I had seen countless videos of very cool Lego machines…everything from pop dispensers to pinball machines, yet not really any ‘how-to’ instructions. Sure, they show some detailed photos, but to copy something, you’d need more.


I wanted to host a session where students were invited to just brainstorm and play and perhaps figure out how they could build a machine. So often, we do sessions that teach introductory robotics or specific code functions and that’s great but we need to remember it’s important to allow time for creative, purposeful play…to jump outside the curriculum and build…and explore…and perhaps dig deeper. So that’s what we did.

I knew supplies would be key: Brilliant Labs had enough EV3 kits (with the programmable bricks, motors and sensors) but to build the machines we were going to need a lot of traditional Lego bricks. So, I made a request to my Facebook friends and low and behold we soon had a giant box of random Legos to use in our machines. (Huge shout out of thanks to Shannon, Morene and Bev for their generosity!)

I'll jump ahead and show the teaser video below...cause I'm so excited to show you what is possible....but be sure to read on for the details......

On July 19, 20, 21 (1-3 PM) for a total of 6 hours we hosted a ‘Build an EV3 Machine’ series. I wasn’t sure if there would be interest in such a class, but was very pleased to have a full house – 13 in attendance. (In hindsight, 6 hours was nowhere near enough time to learn, explore, design, build, test, redesign….but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).


After the welcome and introductions, I simply said, ‘– there is no guide for this session – we’ve never built a Lego machine and we’re going to rely on your brainpower and creativity!’ I’m sure some were wondering what they had gotten themselves in to.

But, then I jumped in and started talking about cool Lego machines – and played a couple of YouTube clips of pop and candy dispensers and Rubik’s cube solvers and pinball machines. The room was abuzz. The videos were inspiring and we had a great chat about what we could build… (and of course many expressed doubts that we would be able to do it – that doubt always surprises and challenges me – I am quick to reassure that we will try; and I believe they have the power to succeed but you never know, maybe we will fail; either way we are guaranteed to learn a ton.) The reality is there is often more learning in struggle and failure than in perfection.

There was no doubt about what they wanted to build --- a pinball machine.


So, again, reminding them we had no instructions, just a ton of bricks and our imaginations – I gave a tutorial on the Lego EV3 system to demonstrate the tools they would have at their disposal. (For more info on the Lego EV3 Mindstorms system check out one of our many Brilliant Labs tutorials).

I explained the brick, the large and medium motors and the touch and distance sensors. The students then took time to program the bricks to move both the large and medium motors.


We brainstormed on how each could be integrated into the pinball machine.

First Attempt: the versatility of the large motor inspired students to think about using the motors to move the flippers -- the movement could be triggered by pressing the touch sensor.

So, they got to work using the touch sensor and the large motor. And it worked. It was so much fun programming the speed/time of the motor. This was to become a major part of our build. So, at this point they also started to build the frame for the machines. Again, with no patterns the students worked on the base and first few layers of the frame. It was interesting to see how they constructed a base and decided on size and color.

The start of the second day came with the realization that this build was going to be a lot of work. Even I was not convinced we’d be able to complete the project by the end of Day 3. So, rather than build several machines, we decided to divide the tasks and have everyone working on different parts of one pinball machine.


That’s the thing about being a maker – and venturing out into unchartered territory – you really can’t predict how long it will take. It’s all new and somewhat unpredictable. It’s often the most frustrating part of making…but take a minute to ask yourself ‘when was the last time you attempted a project with no instructions; with no accompanying YouTube tutorial?’ If you can’t remember when – maybe it’s time you try.

It was at this point we started to talk about the coin slot we’d seen used in the YouTube videos. I took some time to go over the IR sensor (although it was hard to tear everyone away from the building to do traditional teacher led learning, lol). After the demo of how the sensor works, one student took it upon himself to build the coin slot. This was quite the task – he designed a frame and input slot – secured the sensor – and programmed it to note a change in proximity. And it worked! A coin (a Toonie) triggered the sensor. This was very exciting indeed!! This was the point I realized that we definitely possibly could build a working prototype by the end of Day 3.


And so they continued working and working and working! One of the hardest parts was sorting and finding the right bricks…. because the bricks were from multiple sets, I hadn’t taken the time to organize based on either size or color. We really need to rethink the prepackaging of complete sets based on theme – where is the room for imagination? How can we develop resourcefulness of building with ‘what you have’ when everything is pre-counted, pre-sorted and pre-packaged? (End personal rant)


They figured out how to mount the touch sensors on the side of the machine and how to mount the large motors on the inside. This was tricky because they needed to combine traditional Lego bricks with the pegs of the EV3 kit. It required a bit of thought and lots of planning to get a moving motor to stay stationary. Yet they stuck with it! And the motors were mounted. Then, they build a cover/top for the machine and it was time to test. Now, we knew time was at a premium, so we left the coin slot on the outside of the machine for the test run.


There were lots of laughs and cheers as we tested the machine. It worked – not perfectly but it worked.

The ball tended to slip behind the flippers and we didn’t get a chance to add obstacles or other exciting features to the board but it did indeed have potential. I was so proud of what they accomplished.

My only regret was that we built and played and tested and worked right to the last minute! I didn’t leave time to sit around and discuss what we had learned. I didn’t get a chance to ask what was the best part? The worst? Would they do it again? I don’t think I could have torn them away from the Legos they were using…. but wasn’t that the goal?

Epilogue: After the sessions were over, I still had a ton of Lego bricks … and lots of inspiration so I knew that I had to build my own Lego EV3 Pinball machine. It was a lot of work, time and frustration – but it works!! So, check out my next blog and maybe you’ll be inspired to build one too!

#BrilliantLabs #LegoEV3 #PinballMachine #Building #Making #STEAM #NovaScotia #NewBrunswick #KimDesveaux

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