The Robot Competition to Rule Them All

Woody Flowers

From the very beginning, MIT was the natural outgrowth of a different state of mind, one that is inextricably linked to making, building, and doing. The MIT motto mens et manus (“mind and hand”) was as distinctive a principle in 1865 as it is now on which to build a new kind of higher education. At that time, rote memorization was considered the standard method – and indeed a perfectly respectable one – by which to learn at any level.

But MIT and the Department of Mechanical Engineering were founded on a different principle, and by the time Professor Emeritus Woodie Flowers had transformed Course 2.70 (now 2.007) into the project-based, get-your-hands-dirty, robotics-competition-focused experience in the 1970s, MechE’s reputation for innovative education was already solidified. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the educational revolution he helped to evolve was profound.

Flowers developed one of the first hands-on courses with 2.007, turning it into a project-based experience for undergraduate students that culminated in an end-of-semester robotics competition. It placed robots – each built by a singular student using a universal kit of tools and components – head to head during an event that quickly became one of the most highly attended at the Institute. He also helped to evolve a spin-off robotics competition for high school students with Segway inventor Dean Kamen called The FIRST Robotics Competition. It is one of many competitions that imitated Flowers’ original idea.

Having been advised by MechE professor Robert Mann, who had similar beliefs in a hands-on, modern pedagogy, Flowers breathed new life into the MIT way of teaching engineering by doing, a reinvigoration at the right place and the right time that ultimately had a butterfly effect on the popularity of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) around the world.