Student robot competition honors the legacy of the late beloved professor, Woodie Flowers

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Every year, the student robot competition in class 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I) is centered around a unifying theme. From “Star Wars” to “Back to the Future” and “Willy Wonka,” the theme is reflected in the gameboards where robots designed and built by mechanical engineering students compete for points. On Thursday, May 5, the event featured its most poignant theme to date: “Legacy,” a celebration of the competition’s founder, the late Professor Emeritus Woodie Flowers.

Flowers inspired generations of future engineers as a professor at MIT, a co-founder of the global FIRST Robotics Competition, and host of the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers.” His pedagogical approach to hands-on education shaped the engineering curriculum at MIT. In what was a radical educational method at the time, Flowers incorporated a spirited and boisterous competition as part of class 2.007 (then known as 2.70).

“A testament to Woodie’s impact on education at MIT is the fact that we still use essentially the same format for 2.007 that he conceived of 50 years ago. His spirit and his vision live on in our class,” says Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-instructor of 2.007.

“We think 2.007 plays such an important role in training our students to be more like real engineers, ready to tackle open-ended, unstructured problems,” says Sangbae Kim, professor of mechanical engineering and co-instructor alongside Winter. “I’m very much honored to be an instructor, inheriting the pedagogical spirit of Woodie.”

Dressed in bow ties and suspenders — a nod to Flowers’ sartorial style — Kim and Winter served as emcees for the evening. Each round, two robots, built from a kit of materials circulated at the beginning of the semester, navigated a colorful, massive gameboard. They competed for the most points by accomplishing a series of tasks in two minutes. The gameboard itself was inspired by Flowers.

“This year’s competition is a tribute to Woodie Flowers, who was our friend, our colleague, and was instrumental in many of our careers. Tonight’s gameboard is inspired by many of Woodie’s past gameboards,” said Winter as he introduced the event.

The gameboard was modeled partially after the crosswalk in front of 77 Massachusetts Avenue. It is divided by a banister, referencing a famous photograph of Flowers sliding down the banister outside the Building 7 entrance on MIT’s campus. Robots were tasked with collecting and manipulating balls, putting square pegs into round holes, and spinning a “woody flower” to move balls into a Pachinko board — all references to tasks from competitions that Flowers designed when he launched the competition in the 1970s.

Typically taken sophomore year, 2.007 often provides many mechanical engineering students with their first opportunity to build something based on a design of their own creation. They design and program their robots to accomplish tasks on the competition gameboards. Students have the option of operating their robots manually or through a combination of autonomous navigation and manual.

After nearly 100 mechanical engineering students competed in the first round on Wednesday, May 4, the top 32 students came back Thursday night for the finals. Their robots faced off in five sudden-death rounds, with the robot scoring the most points proceeding to the next round.

The event culminated in a final showdown between a robot designed by junior Joshua Rohrbaugh and a robot designed by sophomore Nicholas Schultz. Ultimately, Rohrbaugh’s robot “Salvo” came out on top.

“Overall, my strategy was high-risk, high-reward,” says Rohrbaugh, whose robot scored 325 points in the final round. “Salvo” included multiple projectile launchers to complete tasks of pressing buttons and pulling a weighted pendulum with a grappling hook. The robot also used a multistage lift to raise a 2-kilogram weight, and a spring-loaded hook to spool in a rope.

Hovering over the gameboard was a sign with the phrase “Gracious Professionalism” embossed on it. The phrase, originally coined by Flowers, refers to the act of being kind and respecting others, even in the heat of competitions like the 2.007 robot competition. It became his mantra.Flowers’ kindness and love for educating others was infectious. He had a profound impact, not only on the students he taught, but on his colleagues. At the beginning of Thursday’s competition, Professor Ely Sachs introduced a video of colleagues, students, and mentees describing the ways in which Flowers shaped their own lives.

“Over the course of 47 years, I had the privilege to know Woodie Flowers as my advisor, my mentor, my colleague, and my cherished friend,” said Sachs before introducing the video. Later on, Sachs shared that Flowers’ belief that teaching was the most important profession was instrumental in Sachs’ own decision to become a professor.

Reflecting on the MIT Commencement address she gave in 2015, Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88 said that Flowers embodied MIT’s unofficial motto, “mens et manus et cor” — “mind and hand and heart.” “Thinking about kindness is as important as knowledge, if not probably more,” said Smith, who served as chief technology officer for the United States under President Obama. “His whole concept of gracious professionalism — and how we treat each other, how we include each other, the breadth of our interest and how we drive each other’s passion. We miss him so much”

Former 2.007 instructor and mentee Professor David Wallace concluded, “One can’t leave a better legacy than a well-educated family, and Woodie, we are your family.”

As the cheers of students filled the voluminous Johnson Ice Rink, it was clear that Flowers and his legacy of “gracious professionalism” continues to live on in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.                             

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