Woodie Flowers: Things, Not Theory

Release time:2017-07-18
source:Martin Rowe

 If you've never heard of Woodie Flowers, you're missing out on an important aspect of engineering education: solving problems. The Papalardo Professor Emeritus of mechanical engineering at MIT has a resume that could fill a room. Flowers and Dean Kamen started the FIRST Robotics Competition, which holds events worldwide and is responsible for many people choosing to study and practice engineering. Search his name and you'll see Woodie's many accomplishments.

Flowers gave a keynote address at NI Week 2017, where he talked about why engineers need to think not about equations and theory, but about how they can use their skills to solve many of the world's problems. He also said that engineers, because of their ability to separate fact from fiction, are in a great position to understand how the world works. EE Times met with Flowers at his office on the MIT campus.

Woodie Flowers speaks to engineers at NIWeek 2017. Photo courtesy of National Instruments.

EE Times: How did you go about developing a hands-on engineering course?
Flowers: When I joined the MIT faculty, the head of the ME department was Asher Shapiro, one of the world's leaders in fluid dynamics. His grad course in fluid mechanics was the best course I ever took. He was, though, a classic engineering science guy. He'd start at the upper left corner of the blackboard, and at the end of the class, he was at the lower right corner.

What stuck in my head, however, came from a film series from National Science Foundation (NSF) that Shapiro supervised in making. When I look out the window of an airplane and see that little thing called a wing, I'm more likely to remember it not from Navier-Stokes equations, but because I remember the mechanics of why the wing is there. I realized that for engineers to truly learn how to solve problems, they needed more than theory. So I developed a hands-on course in design in which students had to solve real problems on their own.

EE Times: Do students come in with a yearning to learn?
Flowers: In my classes, particularly in a freshman seminar (which became the biggest freshman seminar at MIT), I would write "Things, not theory" on the blackboard. I would ask them to tell me what they wanted to learn about. I would get some 400 responses, and we'd pick about 150 things where students would give a five-minute presentation to the class. That showed me students could be curious about a lot of things. Creating a self-image with a license to be curious and a need to know is a big deal. Learn about the things around you. Can you figure out what this is?

One of the many objects that Flowers keeps in his office. He often hands such items to prospective PhD students during interviews. They are expected to show curiosity regarding the object.

Nearly half of the students in that freshman seminar were women. Some claimed to have been culturally deprived of the opportunity to learn how things worked.

When I was on nonprofit boards, I would read The Wall Street Journal because I needed to know. All you have to do is plant the seed and set the vector off in the right direction for people to realize their curiosity and willingness to learn.

When I first got involved in the sophomore design course, I was still a graduate student. The department head heard about a creativity kit from Xerox Parc where people were given a bag of things and told to make something. The students really struggled with what to make. That was a frustrating experience and hard for me to help them. They had to tackle a difficult problem first. The following semester, we decided to define the problem first. We told them to build a device that goes up a ramp in 30 seconds. That was all they needed.

EE Times: Reminds me of the movie "Apollo 13" when engineers were given the items on board and had to figure out how to create a tool and tell the astronauts how to build it.
I believe that the kids here are lucky because they are told, "Here's the problem, here's the stuff, go solve the problem." They are given the problem, but there are many ways to succeed. It's not a pass or fail. It has latitude but is well-defined.

EE Times: In trying to create a course that was hands-on, did it ruffle a few feathers?
Flowers: My colleagues would say, "Woodie, what are you doing? The students are spending all their time on your course and not doing the work they need to do."

Asher said, "Because you're in design, you have almost no chance of getting tenure." He was trying to be kind and honest, but that gave me license to "do my thing," so I didn’t try to get tenure until I was in sight of it. I would have liked to hear what they said about me when discussing my tenure. I did make some noise about a different kind of education and stirred things up a bit. Today, it's nice to walk down the halls of MIT as a retired professor and have people smile at me. I never would have predicted that.

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