Woodie Flowers dies at 75

Flowers was co-founder of FIRST

Woodie Flowers PhD ’73, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, died Oct. 11 at the age of 75. Flowers is remembered for his passion, enthusiasm, and kindness that have inspired millions of engineering students around the world.

Up until his retirement in 2007, Flowers mentored countless engineering students and won a number of awards and accolades, such as the Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award, the Edwin F. Church Medal, and the J.P. Den Hartog Distinguished Educator Award. Flowers was a MacVicar Fellow and was also elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Additionally, he served as a distinguished partner and a member of the President's Council at Olin College of Engineering.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Louisiana Tech, Flowers received his masters in engineering, masters, and doctorate degrees from MIT. Flowers then joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

As an assistant professor, Flowers taught 2.70, now 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). Under his leadership, the class evolved into its current form, a hands-on experience in which undergraduate students are challenged to design and build a robot to accomplish a set of  tasks using given materials. The course culminates in a robotics competition.

Later in his career, Professor Flowers served as the head of the systems and design division in the mechanical engineering department and was named Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 1994. 

Mechanical Engineering Professor Alexander Slocum ’82 was advised by Professor Flowers. Slocum wrote in an email to The Tech, “Woodie personified gracious professionalism and teaching.  If there was ever a version of Miracle on 34th Street associated with teaching, it would be Miracle on 77 Mass. Ave and Woodie would be Prof. Santa!” 

He also shared the following poem: “I cannot say Woodie ‘was’ / because he will always be ‘is’ / His love for teaching and design / was simply pure and sublime / He was also a design whiz / and he did it all, just because.”

Inspired by the 2.007 final robotics competition, Flowers helped develop For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), an organization that runs engineering and robotics competitions for students in grades K–12, with inventor Dean Kamen. FIRST began with 28 high school teams competing in a robotics competition similar to that of 2.007. Since then, FIRST has blossomed to span four levels from elementary to high school and include over 570, 000 students in over one hundred countries.

Despite the competitive nature of the FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST describes itself as an organization that has always been about “more than robots.” 

The FIRST memorial fund for Flowers describes how, through Flowers’s guidance and focus on the core value of “gracious professionalism,” FIRST has not only served to spread passion for engineering, but also promote teamwork, inclusion, and cooperative competition, or “coopertition.”

FIRST alumnus Isabella Torres ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech, “When you hear about the culture of other sports, be they athletic or academic, it is completely different from FIRST because of Woodie Flowers. His concept of gracious professionalism made FIRST the welcoming community that it is, and he set an example of how to be not just a good engineer, but also a good person.”

Summer Hoss ’23, another FIRST alumnus, wrote in an email to The Tech that “Woodie Flowers always had a twinkle in his eye and a genuine passion for helping kids learn. He will be missed but his enthusiasm will live on through his positive contributions to FIRST Robotics, MIT, and the world.”

FIRST alumnus Aditya Mehrota ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech, “If I had to take one thing away from everything Woodie taught me, it would be this — we can achieve absolutely anything when we are together as one. He was the fiercest friend and most loving family member to anyone who knew him. Woodie, I’ll miss you so so so so much. And thank you, for everything you’ve done, to change my life.”

Even after his retirement in 2007, Flowers remained an active member of the MIT community. Flowers developed an ethos that was centered on people, and he left a lasting impact on everyone who he interacted with.
Assistant Director of Admissions Chris Peterson SM ’13 wrote in an MIT Admissions Blog post about Flowers, “They say never meet your heroes, but I am here to tell you that Woodie is one of the single-digit number of heroes I have had who not only survived first-contact, but actually got better the longer and better you knew them.”