That student, Krisztina “Z” Holly ‘89, SM ‘92, went on to found MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and became vice provost for innovation at the University of Southern California and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation. But as an undergraduate considering majoring in Course II, Holly says, “the only thing holding me back was that I was terrified of 2.70 … that I’d have to take a box of parts and turn it into a robot.” She decided to close her eyes and jump in anyway. Even though she lost the contest, she won a lifelong mentor. She still meets with Flowers to develop ideas on innovation and education. “He has an amazing way of making bonds with people he believes in,” she says.
In 1992, when Flowers joined forces with inventor Dean Kamen to design a contest for high-schoolers, they applied the principles of design-by-doing and gracious professionalism to create the FIRST Robotics Competition—”2.70 on steroids.” Now in its 20th season, the contest has expanded from 28 teams in a high-school gym to more than 2,000 teams from nine countries. FIRST has turned a former gang member into a NASA employee, saved a Cleveland high school from being closed, and brought thousands of students and mentors together to build robots, nurturing countless future engineers and leaders in the process. “FIRST is unambiguous evidence that if you create the right environment where the right things are celebrated, you get the right stuff,” Flowers says.
The competition’s annual award for a team mentor is named for Flowers, who was its first recipient in 1996. Having relied on good guidance in his own life, he is proud to have his name associated with “people who have done such a fantastic job at impressing their students, getting them excited about design.”
These days, Flowers spends most of his time trying to overhaul engineering studies, arguing that more attention should be devoted to education than to training. “Learning calculus is training,” he explains. “Learning to think using calculus is education.”
In his ideal world, students wouldn’t sit in thermodynamics lectures at college but would be told, “Thermodynamics is really important; learn it while you’re here.” Flowers says, “I’m not interested in training people. If it’s codified, if it’s known, if it’s noncontroversial … if it’s written down in a hundred books, go learn it!” Students who, as he puts it, “accept the responsibility to train themselves” would study core subjects on their own time—a bit like learning Adobe Photoshop through tutorials rather than in a classroom. Then, he suggests, they could take weekly quizzes in their last two years of college to show that they’ve absorbed the material.
Though he says some colleagues respond to these ideas with “dismay,” Flowers believes his approach would free up class time for professors to coach motivated students on “the subtle stuff,” like design—areas where students have more to gain from experienced teachers than from books. “The difference between reading a book about design and doing a design yourself and seeing what happens is really important,” he says. “Yoda said, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ Likewise, you can’t pretend to design things … You can’t pretend to be an engineer. To become an engineer, you have to do something.”
Flowers is still learning, still doing, still pushing others to do the same. Although he became a professor emeritus in 2007 and frequently travels to campaign for his ideas on engineering education, he plans to get back to the classroom at least part time in the next few years. As he often tells students, “If you ever go to work and you think you know how to do everything you’re going to be asked to do that day, it’s probably time to change jobs.”