At MIT he got married, survived heart surgery, and dealt with his father’s sudden death from a heart attack. As he was finishing his master’s in mechanical engineering, he got a job offer from an oil company. By then he wanted a Porsche, he says. But his mentors egged him on. He took the PhD qualifying exam, passed, and decided to stay at MIT. When he was invited to join the MIT faculty in 1972, he took that offer, too—and today he drives a Honda Pilot.
Looking back on the first 22 years of his life, Flowers says, “The only deliberate decision I made was asking Margaret to marry me, and I nailed that one … but I think I was being swept along. Everybody was slapping me on the back saying, ‘Go that way, Woodie.’ ” And he did.
When Flowers first dove into the 2.70 Introduction to Design class as a teaching assistant in 1970, its inaugural year, students were given “creativity kits” and told to make something useful out of things like paper clips, cardboard, screws, bolts, and bits of wire and string. But Flowers noticed that they spent almost the whole time trying to figure out what to do. Then, the night before the project was due—in “the typical MIT cram,” he says—they would finally design and build their contraptions.
Flowers lobbied for a change, suggesting that the students be given a specific task so they could spend the bulk of their time actually practicing design. His wish was granted, and the next year’s students were told to build something that would go down a 30° ramp in three minutes.
That project marked the genesis of the 2.70 contest, Flowers says, and it was a smashing success. He eventually took over the course and “grew up with 2.70,” during which time the contest was filmed for the PBS series Discover: The World of Science. Kits became more sophisticated, with motors and gearboxes, and the assigned tasks grew more complex. The contest became so popular as a spectator sport that a 1981 letter to the editor in the Tech called for MIT’s homecoming queen to be crowned at the 2.70 contest.
In retrospect, Flowers believes that “the most sophisticated thing designers ever do is decide what to design.” Telling students in an introductory class to design “something” thus challenged them with the most complex task they could face. It’s much more reasonable, he says, to get them to think about “how do you solve this problem—rather than what is the problem.”
Another fundamental principle that grew out of the 2.70 contest, Flowers says, was the notion of “gracious professionalism.” “Students would compete like crazy but treat each other nicely in the process,” he explains. Although he’s cautious about overusing the term, he emphatically supports the notion of sharing ideas while competing. In fact, he told one student’s mother that if he’d had a daughter and she had behaved as graciously as her daughter did when she lost the final round of her 2.70 contest, he and his wife would have been proud.