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Woodie Flowers, a pioneer of hands-on engineering education

Flowers and his former student, David Wallace, have created a fun, teamwork-based approach to learning the art of mechanical design.
David Wallace, left, with Woodie Flowers.
David Wallace, left, with Woodie Flowers.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer
David Wallace, left, with Woodie Flowers.
David Wallace, left, with Woodie Flowers.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

This is part of a series of articles linking the work of MIT’s emeritus faculty members with the current state of research in their given fields.

When Woodie Flowers SM ’68, MEng ’71, PhD ’73 was an MIT student in mechanical engineering, most of his classes involved paper-and-pencil design exercises with predetermined “right” solutions; actual class-related construction work tended to be limited to small test devices, built by the book. But having grown up taking things apart and putting them back together, he had a strong affinity for making things, and for making them work.

As he transitioned from student to teacher at MIT, that inclination guided Flowers to take an innovative approach to education: He developed a hands-on, project-centered mechanical engineering class, which has since been widely imitated both at MIT and elsewhere. He also collaborated in the creation of a popular and influential robotics competition for elementary and high school students and hosted a television series that helped draw new generations of students into science and engineering.

Flowers started developing his educational approach to that first class, “Introduction to Design and Manufacturing,” as a teaching assistant. Known originally in MIT’s course-numbering system as 2.70, and now as 2.007, the class has become one of the Institute’s most popular. Still offered every spring, it starts with teams of students receiving identical kits of parts, and culminates in a frenetic and enthusiastic competition among robotic devices designed and built over the course of the semester.
But the competition, Flowers always made clear when teaching 2.007, was really just for fun, and not a component of the students’ grades. Although the contest may have helped to provide motivation for clever designs, what he was really seeking to instill in the students was a can-do attitude, a sense of pride and a philosophy he describes as “gracious professionalism.”

That concept was the “bedrock idea” behind the class, says Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering. He summarizes the idea as: “Compete like crazy, but treat each other well.” And the idea took hold. As fiercely as the teams of students compete, they are also strongly inclined to assist each other — even direct competitors — at every opportunity.

“One will never understand what being graciously professional is like unless you do it,” he says. While much of our society encourages what he describes as “chest-thumping behavior” and humiliation of opponents, “if our educational system can’t counteract that, we’re in trouble,” he says.

From thingamabob to something useful

Growing up in Jena, La., Flowers was introduced early on to the joys of making and fixing things by his father, who worked as a welder, general repairman and inventor.

“He would go around town and tell people, ‘I’m going to take a thingamabob, and a widget, and put them together to make a new kind of slab-kicker’ … and then he’d go do it, and it did work. He did some pretty amazing stuff,” Flowers recalls.

That ability to make something new, interesting and useful out of an old “thingamabob” is at the core of what Flowers himself has always encouraged his students to do — to see things in new ways, to find new possibilities in simple materials. “I think my father taught me more engineering than I learned in school,” he says.

And doing something new, Flowers believes, is at the heart of true education. “It’s a disservice to students to have them work on problems that have known solutions,” he says. “That’s not enough.” It’s essential that students learn to think creatively and originally, and gain the confidence to tackle big challenges, he says.

Mentors and mentees

One crucial aspect of education, Flowers says, is mentorship. But, he adds, “we have a very biased view of mentorship: The older person mentors the younger. But it’s not true. It goes both ways, and the best mentorships flow both ways. I’ve had the pleasure of being ‘mentored’ by a succession of amazing students, including David Wallace.”

That would be MIT professor of mechanical engineering David Wallace, who taught 2.007 for a few years, and who currently teaches a more advanced course called “Product Engineering Processes,” or 2.009, which is the capstone class for mechanical engineering majors.

“I view my role here as enabling people to go off and be technical innovators,” Wallace says. “A big part is building the attitudes and the culture, the belief that they can go out and do things, to make stuff up themselves.”

Wallace has adopted and expanded on the principle of hands-on learning that Flowers pioneered in the department — though Wallace emphasizes that this is simply an extension of the mens et manus (“mind and hand”) principle that has guided MIT since its founding.

“He’s just a phenomenon,” Flowers says of his former student, whom he calls “a delightfully positive example of obsessive-compulsive behavior.”

One example of Wallace’s devotion to creating a successful learning experience is the way he keeps fine-tuning 2.009, which he has taught for more than a decade. “After every time I teach a class,” Wallace says, “I take notes about what I didn’t think worked. If nobody’s listening, it’s a waste of time — mine and theirs.”

On the other hand, when the learning experience is really working, students can get so caught up in it that they lose track of the outside structure. As the class was deeply involved in working out the design of their product, “one student said, ‘I forgot this was even being graded,’” Wallace recalls. “That’s when you know you’ve succeeded.”

In order to engage the students, Wallace says, “I tend to structure classes almost like games, and use things like surprise.” And, in the case of 2.009, there is also a strong element of showmanship, culminating in polished team presentations of prototypes before a packed auditorium — comparable, Wallace says, to a real product rollout.

Learning from robots

That element of competition that Flowers introduced in 2.007 has since extended outside MIT, to a global set of robotics contests he helped spawn 20 years ago in collaboration with inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen. FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, has created four different robotics competitions including students from kindergarten through high school. It started with 28 teams competing in 1992, and has grown to more than 25,000 teams involving 300,000 students and 100,000 mentors in more than 60 countries. FIRST now awards more than $14 million in scholarships each year.

Since retiring from teaching, Flowers has devoted much of his time to the family of FIRST events, which this year culminated in a final contest in St. Louis in late April. Flowers serves as chairman of the organization’s executive advisory board, and as an emcee for the final competition. His concept of “gracious professionalism,” which evolved in the original 2.007 class, has become the official, trademarked motto of FIRST.

In 1981, a PBS documentary that featured 2.007 became one of the network’s biggest hits. That led PBS to hire Flowers for a series called “Scientific American Frontiers” — which he hosted for three years, helping to foster interest in science and engineering among young people.

His intense focus on the best ways to educate a new generation of engineers now extends to examining MIT’s plans to expand into online education through MITx. Flowers wrote a long essay earlier this year in MIT’s faculty newsletter, urging the new program to focus on developing professionally produced materials that take full advantage of new electronic and online capabilities.

“MIT is in a fantastic position to define the liberal education for the 21st century,” Flowers says. “I believe MIT is poised to do a really good job of shifting away from training, and toward education, and toward multidisciplinary activities that allow young people to have a self-image that includes rational self-esteem. If you’re in that position, you can have rational passion, which I think is badly needed for the planet.”

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