|Professor Woodie Flowers|
One man can make an enormous difference if
he dreams big.
Almost on cue, my snapchat alert went off with messages to me from my older robot team - telling me he had just suddenly passed away and how sad they all were. Messages rang out around the world at light speed. Not on the news networks, but on the highly interconnected network of kids, parents, students, and engineers whose lives were somehow touched by Prof. Woodie Flowers.
Woodie Flowers was a professor of mechanical engineering who was tasked with teaching the MIT course "Introduction to Design and Manufacturing" in 1974. Known at that time as 2.70 (the number system to name courses), he injected his desire for hands on learning into the course by introducing a robotic design competition with a new challenge each year that was the culmination of the students learning. By the time I was a student at MIT between 1986-1990, it had become legendary and the biggest sporting event of the year. An elimination tournament in a lecture hall that was packed beyond fire code with hundreds of students cheering and broadcast on closed circuit across campus. In 1990, it started being broadcast on PBS and he was asked to host Scientific American Frontiers on PBS - bringing his fun demeanor to a large audience. Soon after he joined forces with Dean Kamen to form the FIRST robotics competitions using the concepts from his 2.70 invention to inspire kids to enter technical fields and gain skills not normally taught in school.
|We almost never saw him without his|
signature shirts - he walked around
with a set of sharpies so kids could
autograph him at events. He didn't
want to give autographs - he wanted
theirs as they were the stars.
The only time he wasn't in his signature shirts was the last day of the competition - when he would change into a tuxedo to give a speech about something he really cared about - Gracious Professionalism. He insisted that FIRST teach and incorporate good citizenship, fair play and honest
work into the competition. I think he knew that high stakes can make people take ethical short cuts and he felt that while he might not be able to stamp it out, vocalizing it and making it central would speak to the better in us all and inspire us to try hard to make the right choices. I have seen many, many examples of these values and have seen how the constant drumming of good ethics have influenced the decision making of a group of children. He gave a framework that allowed us coaches to make it central to our own teaching. It made me tell my kids that no matter what, they were to keep their 'noses clean', be helpful, be respectful, and if they won to be humble. Woodie understood that the community of people who get engineering degrees is actually very small and their paths would cross; be a good citizen when they first meet you and somehow that would come back to you later.
|Woodie in his tux, talking to thousands of high school students about|
being ethical in everything they do
|Moments before we won the |
World Championship I had the chance to
|Prof Flowers with the current captain |
of The Brainstormers back in 2017 on a
flight back to Boston after an exhausting two
weeks of being super famous
With all my talk about robotics and the good it did my kids, I received a message from one of the casketeers a few years ago. She said she was on a cruise to Antartica and met one 'Mr. Flowers' with his large camera and told him about this needlework teacher and her robot team. He got around!
|Woodie was known to ride his|
unicycle - here inside the main
hall of MIT.
I wish I had the picture - if my friend finds it, I will post it. It goes back to 1987 and my friend Todd was a beloved aero-astro TA as a junior. He was goaded by my husband and more friends to take 2.70 - because of course those Aero Astros should be able to do just as well as those mechanical engineers!
So it came time for the challenge to be released. It would be a tug of war between two robots with a rope tied between them. Each student was given a cardboard box full of rubber bands, small motors and a few other things. The rules - you can use everything in the box, including the box. Creativity in strategy was highly encouraged. Think outside of the box! (Sound familiar?) They were given five weeks to come up with and build their robot.
So my friend decided he would build a forklift and quickly drive out and pick up the competitor and drive him back to his side, dragging the rope with him to win each match. Unfortunately there were only two motors (part of the devious nature of this competition) and he would need both to drive the wheels and be able to turn. So the suggestion was made to Todd to build a transmission. We all pointed at each other in the retelling yesterday, accusing each other of being the one with the 'bright idea'. Of course none of them were Mech-E's. They were all computer scientists. Ha ha. So Todd spent weeks trying to build a transmission out of rubber bands and cardboard and managed to make a robot that couldn't even move. It was dead the day of the competition and would be a huge embarrassment to him as all his recitation sections would be in the stands watching him fail.
So he, being a funny guy, struck on inspiration and showed up with a paper bag on his head, safety glasses and a tiny paper bag on the robot. As he said this all my current robot kids fell on the floor, peeing their pants laughing as he described standing there to boos and his robot slowly being dragged across the competition field with its little bag of shame on it. I am sure Woodie had a great laugh at this. There is a picture - I think it ended up in the MIT newspaper. Todd says he has it. (This video was that year, I am in the first third of the audience... not knowing that I am viewing the nucleus of something that will take over the life of the young man sitting next to me and myself thirty years later. Todd is working on his cursed robot at 3 min 40 sec in).
Of course my son composed himself and said 'Uncle Todd, you were disqualified - the bag wasn't in the box'. Again screams of laughter across the room. Now you have to understand that 'Uncle Todd' is the main 'driver of spaceships' for JPL and the voice of its mission control during launches - on TV all the time. The kids know that he recently was tasked with keeping Voyager alive - human kind's only spaceship outside the solar system - yet in college he couldn't make his 2.70 robot move!! Endlessly hilarious and very human. I like to think that Woodie's spirit was with us in this moment, a famous 50-something NASA engineer telling a funny story about Woodie's course to a group of 14-year olds (who had brought their current robot to the get-away to work on!) who were spending all their time working on his biggest legacy. Connections across generations - all because of a good man who had dreams and the audacity to act upon them for the benefit of students around the world.
Thank you for everything Prof. Flowers - your legacy of creativity, hard work and gracious professionalism will live on inside millions.