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MIT student blogger Yuliya K. '18

MIT Festival of Learning: “Nerd Epistemology” with Woodie Flowers by Yuliya K. '18

from the co-founder of the FIRST robotics competition

The Festival of Learning is an annual event organized by the MIT Office of Digital Learning around the idea that we need to bring technology and pedagogy together for effective learning. I blogged an overview of the Festival last year here. This year, I wanted to be more involved. This post is the first of a series of three posts about the Festival. It is a personal reflection on the keynote address on “Nerd Epistemology” by Woodie Flowers, MIT Professor of Mechanical Engineering and co-founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition. 

Note: this post was originally published on the MIT Office of Digital Learning blog here

One way to judge the impact of a speaker is through the audience reaction, and Professor Woodie Flowers’ reception was incredible. He left us with words of wisdom that perfectly summarize MIT’s spirit of collaboration: “Each of you must pull at least a dozen others with you.” I wish I’d heard these words more in my first year here.

With the quote displayed on the giant screen, most of the audience left quietly, thinking through everything that had been said. There was much to reflect on—in one hour, Professor Flowers introduced more novel ideas about the way we think and learn than I’d thought possible. And that is considering that the Professor started the talk with a broad discussion of the whole universe. 

Professor Flowers’ model of education is perfect for the modern word. With the ability to outsource technical tasks to machines, education is no longer synonymous with training. Now, machines can perform calculus operations for us, but it takes a human to learn how to apply calculus to improve the world. Machines provide models of the human brain, but it takes a human to apply facts about human cognition to pose questions about ethics—how things should be. We are able make inferences from facts. Wayne Gretzky, a famous hockey player, once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Only humans can take facts about the universe and, through critical thinking, gain wisdom about the world and our place in it.

However, we must not discard the importance of machines. Education provides advantages, but training is a commodity we still require. As Woodie Flowers puts it, “A poet who learns Mother Nature’s laws likely becomes a better poet,” or, in stronger terms, “At some point you must face that anti-science is pro-stupid.” In Professor Flowers’ view, we must stop lecturing, outsource training to machines, and use our time to start mentoring—a straightforward action plan for engaging with technology.

Once we distinguish education and training, we can also replace the traditional model of t-shaped education—pursuing shallow understanding of a broad variety of topics and deep understanding of one field—with tree-shaped education. On one side of the tree are training skills that can be outsourced to machines: accounting, statistics, mechanics, etc. On the other side are topics humans ought to learn, in fields such as art, civics, sociology, and philosophy.

These ideas are the fundamental tenets of Professor Flowers’ model of “nerd epistemology”: an exploration of how humans think, and how we can apply truth and knowledge to achieve wisdom. The model is groundbreaking in theory. It has also been applied with amazing results.

At MIT, the class that best embodies Woodie Flowers’ views on learning is 2.009 Product Engineering Processes, a project-based course led by Professor David Wallace. 2.009 is required for seniors in Mechanical Engineering, and it is, in the words of Professor Flowers, an example of true education, and the best justification for residential education. 2.009 is a semester of immersive learning, during which student teams invent and build an alpha prototype starting from a vague topic. Teams have come up with incredible innovations, and some have pursued their class projects past graduation, developing, among other things, life-saving medical machines. Completing these projects in one semester sounds close to impossible, but in the 20+ years of 2.009, no team has failed. The success of the course is a celebration of critical thinking. I highly recommend watching the 2.009 final product presentation, which features amazing sound and visual effects.

Professor Flowers has now left MIT to provide students outside the Institute an opportunity to engage in critical thinking. In 1989, he and Dean Kamen launched the FIRST robotics competition for students in grades K-12. Projections for the the 2017-2018 competition predict that FIRST will have 515,000+ participants in 59,000+ teams, attending 2,900+ events in 83 countries. 150,000+ coaches and mentors will help students create 44,700+ unique robots from scratch. But FIRST participants do so much more than build robots—they celebrate the “right” kind of learning with the ethos of “gracious professionalism.” The success of the program is clear from the millions of FIRST alumni, including 20% of MIT’s most recent freshman class.

I have heard of many innovative ways to think about education in the time of technological growth. Many of them are theoretical, or implemented on a small scale, but Woodie Flowers’ nerd epistemology model is already providing educational advantages to millions of students around the globe. I loved hearing about “nerd epistemology,” and I am certainly not the only one. After the talk, I overheard a group of freshmen discussing the event: “I want to take 2.009 now!” The group agreed—it was the best compliment a speaker could receive.