Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thank You Prof. Flowers

Professor Woodie Flowers
One man can make an enormous difference if
he dreams big.
I want to tell you all about a good man who made a difference in the lives of millions of people over decades.  That seems like an overstatement, but it isn't.  Just yesterday at a reunion of college buddies multiple generations were sharing personal stories of this man and his creations with great enjoyment and laughter.  At the time, we didn't know it was likely his spirit rocketing around the world touching everyone he had touched one last time on his way to heaven.

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.
I think you know why he has touched millions - at this writing, a half a million children from 6 to 18 years old around the world are registered and working as teams in this year's competition.  This year will be the first year that we don't see Woodie at the World Championship.  He has attended every one since its founding.  It will be profoundly sad.  Woodie would wear a new shirt to each visit and the kids would autograph it for him - he must have had closets of button-down shirts with the signatures of thousands of kids who revered him.  It would be a fitting tribute to him to display them all together.

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
Today, as I drove back from that reunion of my MIT friends, I got a text from my son super sad to hear of Woodie's passing.  He was sitting in the passenger seat next to the former captain of another Massachusetts FTC team that we competed against for four years.  They had become good friends after going to college and had gone hiking for the weekend.  That wasn't the only relationship to have grown out of living the values that Woody espoused, my son had been toured around many universities by former competitors and had done the same for others when they needed it for his university.  Once when I took a few of the kids around the University of Michigan and they had their shirts on, engineering students stopped us - they had watched us on YouTube or seen us in former years.  They wished us well for the Worlds that year to the shock of my kids.  That was GP in action.  I know for sure that in the future business deals will happen, hiring will occur, and all the other things that happen from good relationships will for these kids.  Thank you Woodie for installing GP in FIRST so these kids could be friends instead of enemies.

Moments before we won the
World Championship I had the chance to
thank him.
Woodie was wearing his signature tux when he stood next to me and our other robot parents rooting on The Brainstormers to win the 2018 World Championship.  We took the opportunity to thank him for going beyond his MIT teaching and doing the exhausting work of turning his concept into a world-wide competition for children.  I am glad we did.

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
Of course, Woodie lived near us.  The year before as we trekked through the airport in St. Louis I got a text and heard kids yelling that "Woodie is at the gate!!".  He was riding our plane back to Boston.  He saw our kids with their 2nd place throphy and they asked him to sign it and he gladly did so.  As an adult I could see he was exhausted.  This was the second week long World Championship and he must have been about ready to fall over.  So it was to my surprise that as we got on this Southwest flight that the last two seats were one next to Woodie and one next to another FIRST person I knew.  I placed my youngest son next to him and whispered to leave him alone because he must be exhausted.   But instead, Woodie engaged my son, a very decorated First Lego League guy, on the trip home and insisted on a selfie on my son's phone.  Inspiring kids with the last bit of energy he had to give...

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.
Now back to his early days and that story that delighted us all who remembered his early days and made several of our current robot kids fall on the floor with laughter - it must have been his spirit coming through the room to make us all remember this moment.

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.


  1. Lovely stories about someone who must have been a lovely man.

  2. This is the first I've heard of him, and I already miss him! What a giant of a man, and a huge loss to the children of science. To us all.

  3. Prof. Flowers was quite a force for the engineering world. I'm glad he also stressed the Gracious Professionalism in addition to the engineering. Thanks for posting the Tug of War video.

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  5. What a wonderful story. I is good to hearing about those that touch so many lives during their lifetime.