Woodie Flowers, SM ‘68, ME ‘70, PhD ‘72, aims to fill the world with supernerds. He’s not just talking about the kids at the top of their math class. Supernerds, he says, are “people who know a lot about a lot, who think hard and creatively, who love continuing to learn.” He wants them in politics and hospitals, as economists and engineers, using what they know to make educated decisions that change the world. And as someone who owns and operates a boom lift at home, studies Einstein in his spare time, and champions reforms in engineering education, Flowers sets a compelling example for them.
At age 67, he’s as prone to talk philosophy as widgets; about 15 years ago, Flowers and his wife, Margaret, started a “4 a.m. book club” to read about philosophy and modern physics (they keep a coffee pot by the bed). Recently they’ve tackled The Hidden Brain, The Elegant Universe, and Atlas Shrugged; Flowers says that learning together is “one of the most romantic things a couple can do.”
The Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Flowers is legendary for his redesign of 2.70, MIT’s sophomore introduction to design course (now known as 2.007), as well as for his leadership in developing the FIRST Robotics Competition for high-school students. He has attended trapeze school, designed and built his own rig for a photographic expedition in Costa Rica, played polo, won a New England Emmy Award, and gone skydiving, hang gliding, scuba diving, and race-car driving. He and his wife paint together, taking art supplies when they travel, and they’ve been renovating their home in Weston, Massachusetts, for 30 years.
But Flowers claims no specific hobbies, “because I like everything!” he says. Reflecting on his pursuits as a young man, he says, “I collected butterflies, I was an Eagle Scout, I played football badly, and I had a hot-rod roadster.” After a pause, he adds, “And that’s fun—not necessarily letting one kind of thing define me.”
Forgoing the Corvette dream
The son of a schoolteacher and an inventor in Jena, Louisiana, Flowers learned the power of hands-on experimentation early. When his uncle gave him a beat-up 1947 Dodge sedan in high school, he promptly told his father, Abe Flowers—a welder and repairman as well as an inventor—that he couldn’t use the car in that condition. “I didn’t have anything to date in,” he explains.
So he told his dad he planned to make a hot rod out of it. Abe said, “Okay, Scooter, if you wanna do that, I’ll help you. But if you start it, you gotta finish it.” That was a “short statement that was a big lesson,” Flowers recalls. By his senior year, all that was left from the original car were the back axle and part of the frame—and he had the only hot rod in town.
“I learned as much engineering from my father as I did in engineering school,” he says.
Growing up poor, Flowers actually had no plans for college at first. “I was going to get a job in an oil field and buy a Corvette,” he says. Instead, one of his high-school teachers steered him toward a college scholarship for handicapped students (Flowers fell out of a pecan tree in second grade and broke his elbow, and to this day his arm won’t straighten). He applied, won, and decided it was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
When he finished his degree at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, Flowers thought it was finally time for the Corvette. But his department head suggested he apply to graduate school. He did. MIT was another opportunity he couldn’t turn down, so he gave up on the Corvette again.