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Gracious professionalism first

The Tech recently sat down with retired MIT professor Woodie C. Flowers PhD ’73, one of the founders of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition and a recipient of many teaching awards while at MIT.

While at FIRST, Flowers coined the term “gracious professionalism.” According to the FIRST website, gracious professionalism is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”

Woodie has seen cases in which teams pitch in to help other teams in times of need, even though these teams could be competing against each other in future matches.

“The satisfaction from lending tools to a team is one thing,” said FIRST participant James MacArthur in a written account of his experiences of the 2012 Orlando regional competition. “However, actually helping out a fellow team impressed many people, mentors, volunteers, and students.”

Each year, over 50,000 high school students participate in FIRST. Even more staggering is the statistic that 10 percent of each MIT freshman class participated in the competition when they were in high school. Teams must build a robot using a set number of supplies to perform a task determined by FIRST that changes every year. Last year, competitors needed to build a robot that could score the most basketballs in a two minute and fifteen second match.

FIRST is not the only place where Flowers has seen gracious professionalism. The 2.70 Introduction to Design class that he taught for more than two decades (now 2.007) also gave students the chance to express their camaraderie and willingness to help each other. At the end of the course, the class had a culminating competition — an event so popular that the alumni jokingly called it MIT’s version of homecoming.

In its 150-year celebration of the Institute’s history, the MIT Museum named 2.70 as MIT’s most famous class, partially because of this competition. Over the years, Flowers has seen ingenuity, failures, and above all, graciousness.

“In 2.70, I had asked the students to act as if all that they did in the course would be seen by their grandmothers in a nationally-televised documentary,” said Flowers. “They got it and did exactly that. They did engage in trash talk and teased one another, but the overall tone was to help each other and teach others everything they learned.”

Although Flowers recently retired as a professor at MIT, he still involves himself in MIT affairs. He cares deeply about students, and doesn’t hesitate to give advice.

“MIT is a reasonably gracious meritocracy. Sometimes, it is a very tough meritocracy,” said Flowers. “I knew when I walked into the room with you that you’re smart, and ambitious and multi-layered and interesting. And when you’re with a group of your colleagues … that’s true with them too — cherish that diversity.”

Flowers often likes to compare MIT to steamrollers and candy stores; he believes that students choose what their experience in college will be like. It can be either four years of hard, relentless stress, or four years of interesting, rewarding work, depending on the student’s mindset.

“While you’re here, an essential part of the candy store is the other people that are shopping. You must pay attention to them and what’s in their market basket too,” said Flowers. “Talk about what they’ve paid [for].”

It seems like MIT is as good of a place as any to learn from peers, be it gracious professionalism or something else.