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Q&A with robotics competition co-founder Dr. Woodie Flowers

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Lindsey Foat – The Hale Center for Journalism

Instead of seeing 58 robots competing, Dr. Woodie Flowers sees 58 solutions to a problem he created.

Flowers is a Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, original host of the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers” and the co-founder and creator of the yearly challenges for FIRST Robotics.

He will be in Kansas City for the Greater Kansas City Regional FIRST Robotics Competition which began Thursday at the Metropolitan Community College Business and Technology campus.

Since 1992, FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, has been getting thousands of kids involved in robotics as well as hands-on and creative problem solving.

Prior to his visit, Flowers spoke with Education Reporter Lindsey Foat about his own introduction to engineering and the challenges he sees in education today.

Dr. Woodie Flowers’ design classes at MIT served as the template for FIRST Robotics competitions. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Flowers)

What was your first introduction to science and engineering as a young person? What hooked you?
“I grew up in a very small town in Louisiana. My first robot was a hot rod roadster and my father was my mentor. That was a wonderful introduction to engineering. I did not plan to go to college, but got a rehabilitation scholarship as part of my senior year and all of the sudden had this opportunity to do it. So I went off to school knowing that I was not very well prepared, but with my sister’s help, convinced that I could do it if I tried hard. So I took algebra and trigonometry as a college student, because I didn’t have the background to go to engineering school. I’ve always been surrounded by people much smarter than me, and I felt, I think, inappropriately insecure about that and I think that’s a reasonable way to go. So hands-on experience was part of my life and my father was a very unusual creative person. He was a terrible business person; we were literally dirt poor – never owned a house – but he did things in interesting and creative ways and I think I mimic him.”

What was your role in the creation of FIRST Robotics?
I met Dean (Kamen) a few years after he had founded the organization FIRST and he was looking for an outreach program. At the time, I was hosting “Scientific American Frontiers.” That program and the previous one, “Discover the World of Science,” had covered our design and build competition at MIT. So I showed Dean a very well produced video of one of those competitions and Dean said ‘Let’s do it.’ …. So we went off to do the 270 (design and build) contest on steroids, which is what was the first robotics competition.

What is the goal of FIRST?
Dean and I have a convenient running debate, because we both know we’re both right – I think. Dean says FIRST is about inspiration and I say it’s about education. I think the two are inseparable, so we both, I think, can be comfortably right. But Dean’s approach was to get kids fired up and my approach is to get them fired up in a way that is compatible with all the other stuff that they’re trying to do as part of their formal education. And I think both those things can happen.

What are the major challenges you see facing STEM education?
I believe that the issue is not STEM education, it’s the liberal education for the 21st century, which is an education that is a balance between technology or the universe or science and humanism or art or all the things that humans in society do. I don’t believe we can afford to have people claim to have a liberal education without understanding the universe. I don’t believe we can afford to have large numbers of technologists and scientists who choose not to pay attention to humanism. We will, I believe, have people who are super specialized and deep in a particular kind of science or math. People who are super specialized as fantastic musicians or concert pianists, etcetera. However, for a democracy like the United State to work, we must have a much larger group of people who understand enough to make rational decisions …. I believe that FIRST is one archetype for liberal education in the 21st century. In FIRST kids get together to tackle a complex problem in a team deeply imbedded in technology. And they do all that in the context of a competition, which is also a celebration.

A central part of FIRST Robotics are the values it teaches participants. What is “gracious professionalism” and how did it come to be such an integral part of FIRST?
Gracious professionalism is a balance between the two sides of your brain. If we were to super stereotype the brain’s behavior and say it has an empathetic or passionate side and a rational side, gracious professionalism is a blend of those two things. I believe that’s where most of the population should be if they are to be considered a well-educated person …. I coined that term back at MIT 30 years ago.

Whether at MIT or through FIRST, you’ve used hands-on, project-based learning. What do you find most rewarding about that approach to teaching?
I didn’t know any better than to do it that way. When I became an engineering student at Louisiana Tech and even in graduate courses at MIT, I don’t think I had the symbolic manipulation horse-power of many of my colleagues in class. But the stuff that we were doing made sense to me because I had used a sledgehammer to bend metal. And I had found out what it’s like to not brace things enough and have the hot rod accelerate and have the engine shift and cause more damage than you ever want to imagine. So my understanding of engineering was scaffolded on my interaction with things and my father …. I don’t think that one can ever learn to design anything by reading about it and I have been primarily a design teacher my whole life. You only learn to do it by having ideally a supervised opportunity to do it.

Major Funding for Education coverage on KCPT provided by Jo Anna Dale and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

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