While he may be more recognizable to the public as the host of PBS’s early 1990s series Scientific American Frontiers, at MIT the name Woodie Flowers immediately brings to mind one thing, or rather one class: the iconic 2.70, Introduction to Design. When he started as a teaching assistant in 1970, students in 2.70 (now 2.007) were given kits full of cardboard, paper clips, wire, and screws and told to make something useful. The problem was, according to Flowers, that the students spent the whole time thinking about to what to make, not how to make it.
It was time for a course redesign, something that would shape the MIT curriculum for years to come. Instead of letting the students brainstorm for a good idea the whole semester, Flowers would provide them with one. This way, he surmised, students could spend the majority of the course actually practicing design. The following year, students were required to take their kits and make something that would go down a 30-degree ramp in three minutes. Thus, the still-popular 2.70 contest was born. Not one to let his students have all the fun, Flowers built his own machine from the same parts as the students. Sadly, it didn’t work exactly as he envisioned. “We put sand in the kits that year, as a ballast, and I forgot to account for it. There was sand all over the ramp and my machine slid right down,” he laughed, gesturing wildly. Forty years later, the small but intricate model still sits on a cluttered shelf in his office, a testament to his sentimentality if not his engineering prowess.
The 2.70 contest, important in its own right, helped spawn something bigger: the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). The FRC is a competition where thousands of high school kids from all over the world actively participate in science by building complex robots season after season. FIRST, or “for inspiration and recognition of science and technology,” was founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, as a way to inspire students to get involved in science and engineering. Together Kamen and Flowers founded the FRC in 1992, using the model from MIT’s successful design class and creating “2.70 on steroids.” The students are younger and less experienced than the MIT sophomore’s walking into the 2.70 classroom, but they’re designing, building, and programming more complex machines.
Programs like FIRST are important in fighting what Flowers calls “passive learning,” where students sit in classrooms and let the information wash over them, remembering only enough to regurgitate answers for an exams. “There’s a very big difference between just training and actually educating,” said Flowers, and FIRST is an important example of education, something that this country’s school systems are missing. Still, it’s easy to see that Flowers sees the FRC as more than an educational tool, to him watching the teams interact and treat each other nicely is one of the most important aspects. “If you go through a year of FIRST without a tear in your eye, you need psychiatric help immediately,” Flowers said, only partially joking. “So many amazing things happen.”
Even in his everyday life, Flowers makes it a habit to see the amazing. He stated matter-of-factly that people should be in awe at least once a week. Long time friend Dr. Wendy Hendricks said that she’s never ceased to be impressed by Flowers’ inquisitive nature. “I got lucky,” he explained, “I suddenly found that it was really neat to look out the window of an airplane and see all of those things and know what they’re for.”
Hendricks, Flowers’s self-appointed “critical observer” called out his quirks with amused affection. Analytical, in the 30 years they’ve known each other, Flowers has never missed an opportunity to point out a piece of machinery that he deemed “ridiculously conceived” or poorly designed. Critical eye included, Hendricks wouldn’t fault her friend for his personality. After all, seeing everyday things as potential design challenges is what makes him a great engineer. “Woodie has his own way of doing things, regardless of how many times it may have been done differently by others.”
Forever the diligent professor, Flowers passes on one last piece of advice: “Make friends with the knot in your stomach. Just make sure it serves you instead of stops you.”