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A Champion for Supernerds

Faster than a speeding robot, able to bend rebar with the whack of a sledgehammer, Woodie Flowers is on a mission to promote hands-on engineering education.

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.

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.

2.70 Reborn

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.

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.

Scaling Up

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.” 

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