Photo by Jake Ingram
Dr. Woodie Flowers gives his signature
thumbs up at the 2006 FIRST Championship
in Atlanta, Ga. Used under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license.
This week I would like to take the time to honor a “hero” in engineering. Dr. Woodie Flowers, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition, died October 12, 2019, following complications from aorta surgery. Flowers is one of the most well-known Mechanical Engineering professors in the world due to his unique approach to instruction.
Flowers began his career as an assistant professor at MIT, working with Herb Richardson on the “Introduction to Design and Manufacturing” class. The class featured a design competition where Flowers would give teams in the class a box of random parts and a goal of creating something useful. In 1974, when Flowers took over as lead professor of the course, it rapidly became the most popular course on the campus.
Flowers updated the competition each year, providing different components and different challenges. The challenges became increasingly difficult over the years, but students always rose to meet them. The competition became so exciting that PBS began broadcasting it on “Discover the World of Science,” and jokingly referred to as MIT’s true homecoming game. In 1987 Flowers handed the class over to Harry West to move on to a more public role.
In 1990, “Discover the World of Science” changed its name to “Scientific American Frontiers” with Flowers as the host. He hosted the show until 1993, all the while working with Dean Kamen to form For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a project to inspire a culture celebrating science and technology.
Flowers introduced the phrase “gracious professionalism” to FIRST in 1992, which has driven the culture behind the movement ever since. Flower has served as the National Advisor to FIRST since its inception and was inducted into the STEM Hall of Fame during the 2017 VEX Robotics World Championship.
Flowers was best known for his passion in sharing his expertise through experience and competition with students of all ages. The world needs more engineers with a passion for teaching the trade. His methods of hands-on experiential learning changed the course of engineering instruction over the last three decades.