Afterhours with Woodie Flowers
The Professor Emeritus talks about unicycles, roller blades, and FIRST Robotics
Woodie C. Flowers PhD ’73 is best known as one of the founding members of the FIRST Robotics Competition, a high school science and technology competition. He is also an Emeritus Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering here at MIT. I got a chance to talk with Flowers over the phone, as he’s currently on the road for various FIRST competitions. He told me about the MIT class that started the competition and tells potential freshmen how to succeed at the Institute.
The Tech: Your name is pretty unique. Is it actually your real name?
Woodie C. Flowers: It’s really on my birth certificate. I had one grandfather named Woodie and one grandfather named Claude and so my full name is Woodie Claude Flowers.
TT: You’re technically retired now. What are you doing with all your free time?
WCF: I’m on the board of three companies, on the advisory board of two others, and involved in two start-ups, so there’s a lot of that. I also spend a lot of time on FIRST. But my wife and I both really enjoy nature photography and scuba diving and traveling and we’re able to do more of that. We took polo lessons and I took a one-week trapeze school. My wife recently gave me a gift certificate for hang-gliding school.
TT: Where did you get the idea to start FIRST Robotics?
WCF: In about 1970, we had the first build-it-from-a-kit and accomplish-a-specific-task competition in a class called 2.70, now known as 2.007 [Design and Manufacturing I].
TT: Can you explain why you have everyone sign your shirt at the competition?
WCF: Back in the early days, I was the master of ceremonies for all the competitions, and when I was starting each round of the competitions I would have people give me things and ask me to wear things that represented their teams. That became a tradition of sorts, and I had a vest each year, and the last vest from when I retired weighed 22 pounds, and it had gotten pretty complicated to get through airport security. And so I had way more team T-shirts and stuff than I could ever use so I wanted to be able to receive things from the community, but I didn’t want to take gifts from them. I decided that I would take their signatures instead. I started wearing a new shirt for each season and I would ask people to sign my shirt. Last year’s shirt had about 1000 signatures. They’re wonderful things because I’m confident that I will have the autograph of a Nobel prize winner and U.S. presidents and so on.
If you look back on the history of 2.70 I would dress kind of formally. The idea is that this is not a science fair; this is something that is exciting and costumes and celebration are an appropriate part of it. It’s sharing an experience together and celebrating what you’ve learned up until that point.
TT: What’s the biggest stunt you’ve ever done at the competition? There are photos of you rappelling in from the ceiling at one event.
WCF: In that picture I was a guest master of services, and the device was developed by some former students. I have ridden the unicycle a bit at FIRST competitions, and I started doing the awards ceremony on roller skates, which turned out to be an amazing error because if you just stand up for about three hours on roller blades your ankles get pretty tired. Now it’s kind of a tradition, and the new master of ceremonies does rotating headstands and someone else does back flips.
TT: How would you advise prospective freshmen to get the most out of their time at MIT?
WCF: My standard advice to incoming students is that MIT is either a steamroller or a candy store. You have to pick. If you allow it to be a steamroller then it’s a big, mean steamroller and it will not serve you well. But if you pick candy store, it’s the best candy store you could ever imagine. And the facets of the candy store include being in a group of people that are highly motivated and will raise the bar for you.
Our high school system and most of the education system rewards passive learning. You sit in a room and stuff washes over you and you make good grades on quizzes. It has very little to do with becoming educated, in my opinion. The classroom is now a minor part of becoming educated, I think it will become increasingly irrelevant as time goes on. Doing things that are multidisciplinary, multifunction, multiperson, multicultural. All that stuff is really much more important.
One of the discussions that we had for the MIT 150 is what might go well with mens et manus, or mind and hand. One that I thought was important is rational, or reason, and passion. Your generation must have a pretty firm handle on what you believe and what you think you believe. Right now there’s an amazing conflict about whether or not you do or don’t believe in global warming based on whether or not you like Al Gore. That’s not reason, it’s just completely absurd. We have major political decisions being decided by bumper sticker campaigns and there’s nothing about politics that’s reasonably simple enough to be reduced to a bumper sticker.
MIT, for incoming freshmen, is a wonderful chance to get grounded and develop a self-image which includes informed, creative thinking.
TT: What do you think it is about the MIT way of doing things that makes it so respected and replicated around the world, considering that it was an MIT class which provided the idea for FIRST?
WCF: Obviously MIT is a meritocracy. And that’s a very powerful motivator. I believe also that, for the most part, it’s a reasonably kind meritocracy. When I gave students this problem definition and this kit of materials and told them to accomplish a specific task, they accepted that challenge, as you might guess. However, much more importantly, they accepted the challenge of helping each other and treating each other graciously during the process. And for the most part, students in 2.70 took pride in teaching others what they’d learned, sharing the results of their experiments, sharing ideas. And in the competition itself it was a celebration. No one thumbed their nose at someone they just beat. It was much more common for a 22-year-old male to give another a hug after his machine just trounced the other. So I believe that gracious professionalism is alive and well at MIT. And it better be, because the people that understand the natural universe — you know, robots are natural — should have a powerful advantage in shaping the future of our culture. I believe that understanding nature, understanding self, and understanding society all have to go together. I believe that MIT is a powerful place and has a reputation for being a powerful place because it does a more reasonable blend. I believe that MIT flirts with providing the definition of the liberal education for the 21st century.
You are in the top one thousandth of one percent of the humans that have lived ever, that know enough to have a very good informed discussion. You should treat that with a great deal of respect, because you are standing on the shoulders of giants. You have the opportunity to give back in a whole bunch of ways, and if you leave MIT with the notion that you’ve learned a lot and you know a lot, you’re doing well.
This is the part of a series of interviews with MIT professors. Ever wanted to ask your professor something totally random? Send your questions and professor suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.