Steel Hawks win Chairman’s Award for the first time

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The Townsend Harris robotics team, the Steel Hawks, won the US FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) NYC Regional Chairman’s Award for the first time in the team’s history on April 29. According to the FIRST website, this is one of the most prestigious awards that “recognizes a team that reflects sustained excellence and impact within the FIRST community, in its own community, and beyond.”

Members of the team recalled their shock and excitement upon receiving the news. “It was all over a Zoom call that I didn’t even join until after I heard about it, I was really in shock because the season ended so early and I wasn’t sure how they would decide winners,” said sophomore Ilan Matsuyoshi.

 Junior Agathe Catechis said, “I wasn’t paying much attention to what they were saying and the announcer’s voice was kind of in the back of my mind until Mr. Heitman jumped up and was screaming ‘yes, yes,’ and I was taken off guard … then all the seniors were crying.” 

To qualify for the award, robotics teams must submit an essay, a Chairman’s video, and a presentation that captures how the FIRST program has impacted their team, how they spread the FIRST message, and how they inspire other members of FIRST.  However, due to the coronavirus crisis and the cancellation of competitions, the presentation and video portions of this award were not taken into consideration this year, and the team won solely on its essay.

“The process was really just a number of weeks working on an essay that we actually ended up remaking into something that got us the award, because it was much different than anything we’ve written before,” said Ilan.

“I believe that the outreach of past alumni and current upperclassmen allowed for the Chairman’s subteam to write such a great essay,” added freshman Matthew Algenio. “Without members of 2601 traveling the extra mile (quite literally sometimes) to reach out and educate others about STEM, we would have nothing to write about in the chairman’s essay.” 

“The essay embodies the team as a whole, what we stand for, what we have done for our community and communities abroad, and just who we are in general,” said sophomore Chris Gilson, a member of the Chairman’s department and the head of finance. “We sought to answer who are the Steel Hawks, and I think we gave a pretty good answer.” 

Head Coach and science teacher Joel Heitman attributed their win to “years and years of dedicated students who put their heart in everything they do, and perseverance.” Likewise, Agathe, despite it only being her first year on the team, said “I think that [our] willingness to pave the road for others to pursue robotics allows them to see what STEM skills they may be good at and maybe to change their future to go into STEM and maybe change the world [is what allowed us to win the award].” 

Physics teacher and coach Joshua Raghunath stated, “The team has epitomized FIRST’s ideals for nearly a decade. I believe that was the largest contributing factor to why the team was selected to win this award.” 

Given the fact that the season was canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Heitman said, “Winning this award is special anytime, yet this year I do believe winning the award honors everything the team has done in the past, present, and what values highlights our values as a team.” 

“I think it really is a lot more meaningful because everyone was really looking forward to this season especially the seniors and we became a stronger family working on the robot and taking the tests to be on the team and reading the chairman essay before they sent it out together as well so it was really good to win the most prestigious award for FIRST,” said sophomore Bebe Adewale. 

“As soon as they mentioned our biggest projects in the Philippines and in India, hosting workshops to teach engineering and coding, excitement filled the zoom call and it was truly a great feeling. I wish there was a better adjective than ‘great’ but I really can’t think of one. Winning this award has meant so much to me, after we came so close last year. I would have liked to see us win at competition and get the full experience, but winning chairman’s was still a moment I will never forget. With the season cancelled and the thrill of completion gone, this achievement gave me that thrill and excitement,” said Chris. 

Mr. Raghunath recalled, “After the announcement that the team won I was elated at seeing the work put forth by the students for so long be finally recognized by the rest of the FIRST community. The coaches and mentors have always been proud of what the team has been able to accomplish year after year. The students were distraught when the season was canceled due to the pandemic, and to see their efforts be awarded the highest recognition possible this year has helped alleviate some of that feeling.”

“The students are the reason for this award, it comes from how they support one another, how they learn from each other, and just caring so much,” said Mr. Heitman. 

Image courtesy of Steel Hawks