While I understand your purpose, Carolyn, I hope you don’t mind me playing the Devil’s Advocate here a little bit, because I think that it might spur a little bit more of discussion. Please don’t think that I am attempting to significantly degrade the Chairman’s Award, its prestige, or its importance within the greater FIRST community - rather, I’m attempting to play the Devil’s Advocate - based on things I’ve seen and heard from quite a few students and alumni - to spur civil discussion
Opinion: Why the Chairman’s Award is Kinda Sorta Irrelevant
“The Chairman’s Award honors the Team that best embodies the goals and purpose of FIRST and is a model for other Teams to emulate.” Let’s assume that the “goals and purpose of FIRST” are to change the culture of the world through those all-important “Inspiration” and “Recognition” of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
What is inspiration? How can you define it? How can it be quantified? That is, after all, for the judges to decide. This, in and of itself, seems to be a slightly flawed system - after all, what inspires a thoroughly matured adult judge is most likely NOT the same as what will inspire a five- or six- or seven- or eight-year-old child, or even a teenager. If a team chooses to place emphasis on inspiring youth, then is it not entirely possible that a program that delights this target group falls flat with adult judges? Even if some of the people affected by this team’s work submit letters of support - the decision ultimately lies in the interpretation of this team’s program and the intent and purpose of the letter of support; it all goes back to the judges.
Certainly, at times it’s obvious what team is deserving of winning the Chairman’s Award and entering the FIRST Hall of Fame. In 2012, I don’t know that very many people would have argued that Team 1114 was not the clear favorite to be the newest Hall of Fame inductee. And that’s because it is truly an inspirational team - a team that is generally very professional in its conduct, extremely competitive on the field, and broad in its impact outside of the game.
Recognition for this sort of work and effort is extremely important. With that said, it’s not hard to imagine (and I have certainly seen evidence of this) students - and even mentors - on a team become so jaded or disillusioned with the idea of the Chairman’s Award that their efforts in creating their presentation or writing an essay or making a video become single-minded in scope. The Chairman’s Award is no longer about the criteria, but about the Blue Banner and the automatic bid for Championship, the Michigan State Championship, or the Mid-Atlantic Region Championship. It becomes about checking boxes off of a list - causing teams to want to do the things they believe (or even worse - know) will win them the award and discouraging them from taking risks, from starting groundbreaking programs with grand dreams and hopes - the sort of programs that can make a flying leap towards FIRST’s “goals and purpose” rather than another generic baby step.
Is that wrong? I tend to think so. Certainly teams that are making breakthroughs, the teams that are blazing trails are the teams that tend to win the Chairman’s Award at the international level and be immortalized into FIRST’s Hall of Fame. But getting these kinds of teams TO the Championship in the first place can be difficult when perennial Chairman’s Award Winners become complacent with their “Winning Formula.” Once that paradigm becomes established, how long will it take for the new guard to be ushered in? Would it ever?
The worst thing about this is that teams who repeatedly face this sort of competition may become jaded with the award and not only stop presenting but also allow their outreach to wither and die. In that sense, the Chairman’s Award is self-defeating. And that’s bad news for FIRST and its goals.
Perhaps it calls for a different mechanism by which the award is given - require all teams to submit a proposal alongside a robot at competitions? Perhaps only allow teams to conduct an interview if selected initially by judges AT the competition? Make the Chairman’s Award selection process more accessible and available to the opinions of more than simply the judges? Make the process for winning the Chairman’s Award at regional or district events more similar to the Engineering Inspiration Award?
There is likely no single best solution, but the system as it currently stands removes the emphasis on the outreach itself and places the emphasis on “the most prestigious award” given out to teams by FIRST. That prestige inherently brings with it a sort of desire and lust for success that doesn’t belong in the culture that teams truly deserving of the Chairman’s Award are attempting to build.
I apologize for the length, but this is something I have seriously considered on multiple occasions. I am someone very passionate about what the Chairman’s Award stands for (or, at least, attempts to stand for), but I can see compelling arguments of this nature. As it is, as a presenter for 2337 for the team’s first ever DCA presentation (and win!) as well as its second ever DCA presentation (and loss), I was always very proud of what my team did that seemed - in my estimation - be be unique, fresh, and exciting. I think that FIRST is right to place such importance on this outreach, but I have at times wondered if the award really is all that important, of even important at all.
In an ideal world, there would be no need to recognize teams for doing such work - the inspiration would be reward in and of itself. And for many teams, this is the case. So it truly begs the question of whether or not the award truly IS important? For the teams that truly deserve to win, is the recognition all that important in the first place?