Students Imagine a World Where Technology Dissolves Boundaries

REDMOND, Wash., July 18, 2005 – An online bilateral learning space where the roles of teacher and student blur. A Web site to educate IT and medical students about the science of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in medicine and the impact of intelligent prosthesis on society. An IT-enabled cooperative to help large firms tap talent and boost economies in rural Indian communities.

These are just some of the top projects in this year’s Imagine Cup – a Microsoft-sponsored global technology competition designed to show students the real-world opportunities that are available through technology. Now in its third year, the Imagine Cup continues to grow in leaps, this year drawing more students from more countries to an expanded range of invitationals.

“This year, we saw the Imagine Cup on its way to becoming the world’s largest and most inclusive student technology competition,” says Morris Sim, a senior director in the Academic & Developer Community Group at Microsoft. “Regardless of where you are in the world or what your technology interests are — whether it be in programming, creating a short film, computer graphics, information technology or developing code to play a game — there’s a way for you to compete.”

Imagine Cup 2005 drew some 16,000 students from more than 92 countries — up from 10,000 students from 90 countries in 2004, and 1,000 students from 25 countries in its inaugural year of 2003. The growth is due in part to the addition by Microsoft of five new invitationals — Visual Gaming, Office Design, IT Business Plan, Information Technology and Web Development — some of which have categories for high-school students to enter. That brings the total of Imagine Cup invitationals to nine (see sidebar for complete list). Microsoft has also nearly tripled the amount of total cash prize money, from US$85,000 in 2004 to US$215,500.

Worldwide champions have already been announced in the IT Business Plan, IT High School, Web Development and Web Development High School competitions. The finalists’ placement in the other categories will be determined at the worldwide finals in Yokohama, Japan from July 27 to Aug. 1 – a grand finale that will feature presentations by Mamoru Mori, the first Japanese astronaut to go into space; a live performance by Joel and Benji Madden, lead singers from the band Good Charlotte, and other special guests.

Real-World Applications vs. Pie in the Sky

Weaving together all the diversity of projects and participants is this year’s theme: Imagine a world where technology dissolves the boundaries between us. Sim says the theme challenges students to come up with projects that have real-world applicability – that would really help dissolve boundaries between people today – not that one might find an application for 20 years from now.

“The Imagine Cup is all about what’s possible with technology today, how students can take the problems they see in their world and implement real working solutions,” Sim says.

It’s certainly a thread that runs through many of the leading projects. Drawing on firsthand experience of life on both sides of the digital divide, a group of business students in India this year won one of the new competitions – the IT Business Plan invitational, which challenges students to present great ideas for bridging the digital divide in the form of a business plan.

The Indian team’s proposal: grow a number of rural micro cooperatives and, drawing on that affordable labor source, provide outsourced data-entry and conversion services to large Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies. The student team, called ProGreen, will interact with the large BPOs and the rural workers in an enabling, or sub-contracting role. It will provide a worksite, with connectivity, and skills-training for cooperative members.

“India has seen robust economic growth in the past decade, but the social and economic impact of such growth has been largely restricted to urban areas,” says Anand Venkataraman, head of operations for team ProGreen, whose members are students at the Bharathidasan Institute of Management (BIM) in Trichy, near the southernmost tip of India. “Our team members have had the benefit of working for large corporations in urban pockets like Bangalore as well as understanding the rural landscape. The real point of inspiration was when we saw educated, talented rural youth struggling to make a living!”

On paper at least, the project looks like a win-win: The large BPO firms will see several benefits — from reduced wages and a reliable source of manpower, to less attrition and an opportunity to adopt socially responsive practices. And cooperative members will benefit from average projected earnings of about US$1,100 each per year — more than most rural dwellers make today. Many will also become information leaders in their communities, thus helping to bridge the digital divide. And with economic empowerment come other social benefits, such as improvements in health and nutrition and in sanitation and hygiene, and a stemming of the migration of rural dwellers to urban areas.

But the ProGreen team isn’t planning to leave the project on paper. They intend to use part of their US$8,000 Imagine Cup prize as seed money to kick start the plan within a year. The other team members are CEO Santhosh Ramdoss, CFO Deepak Kumar Bhatter and Chief Training Officer Anita Parthasarathy.

Dissolving Boundaries Via the Web

A team from Romania won the Web Development invitational – another new addition to this year’s Imagine Cup – which calls on students to use the Web to create innovative educational sites for their peers using ASP.NET, a Microsoft server-side Web technology. Using Macromedia Flash MX with an ASP.NET backend and Microsoft SQL Server 2000, the four-person team created a visually stunning Web site presenting information, forums and other interactive features focusing on fuzzy systems – an alternative to traditional logic with applications at the leading edge of AI – and their uses in medical rehabilitation.

“Our idea was to bring the IT world and the medical world together, to join forces to study, create, expose and develop new and useful thinking,” says Adrian-Mihai Topala, a member of the Romanian team, called I.A. Core, whose members are students or recent graduates of the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi in northeastern Romania. “There aren’t a lot of educational Web sites with nice graphical interfaces, and we believe it’s a real pleasure for a student or any other visitor to browse and read from ours.”

The Web site’s specific focus is intelligent prosthesis technology, which has applications in hearing aids, pacemakers, retinal prostheses and prosthetic limbs. For example, the most important information lacking for lower limb amputees is the pressure exerted by the prosthetic foot on the ground. Intelligent prosthesis technology can potentially provide an artificial substitution of that natural feedback, thus greatly assisting the amputee to use their prosthetic limb correctly.

In addition to sections on theory and applications, the site includes quizzes, a functional “expert system” and a “fuzzypedia” — a Web-based encyclopedia written collaboratively by peers and designed to spread information about AI techniques in medicine worldwide. Other members of team I.A. Core, which won US$8,000, are Cirja Ionut, Costel-Catalin Stan and Ioan-Cristinel Istrate.

Taking the US$5,000 first prize in the Web Development High School invitational is 19-year-old Chor Ki (Wilson) Ng of Hong Kong, who initially decided to compete as a way to measure his programming skills against other competitors around the world. His Web site, the Bilateral Learning Center (BLC), offers a less teacher-centric approach to education.

“In the 21st century, technology will enhance the effectiveness of the creation and sharing of knowledge,” says Ng, who was a high-schooler at CCC Kei Yuen College and plans to attend the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. “The idea of a bilateral learning center is to create a better learning environment by improving on the traditional classroom approach.”

The BLC Web site allows members — teachers and students alike — to post and take tests on math, chemistry, English and other subjects, and to receive credits for doing so through a credit system. Created using ASP.NET, Flash, ActiveX, Crystal Reports, JavaScript and other programs, BLC can also be accessed on the go via Pocket PC, so learning is not restricted to traditional school hours.

Ng also won second prize, US$4,000, in the main Web Development invitational for his BLC knowledge bank, which includes an interactive test zone, multimedia forum and members’ area.

Next Stop – The Imagine Cup World Festival

To get this far, the students had to pass increasingly competitive reviews of their work. At the Imagine Cup worldwide finals in Yokohama, contenders in invitationals where winners have yet to be announced will present their work and hope to win first prizes of up to US$25,000. Capping off the competition on Aug. 1 will be the Imagine Cup World Festival, an event which includes the announcement of the winners as well as speakers and entertainment.

Mori, the Japanese astronaut, will speak about making dreams come true. Also on the speaker list, Nolan Bushnell, entrepreneur and founder of Atari, Inc., and fresh off their Live 8 Japan appearance, Joel and Benji Madden will perform a one-time-only acoustic concert – free to all invited attendees – to conclude the festival.

“We’re inviting thousands of Japanese students to attend the Imagine Cup World Festival,” Sim says. “The Festival is an extension of the Imagine Cup, designed to celebrate achievements in technology and inspire the next-generation IT students to continue their personal and professional development.”

Microsoft will also use the occasion to relaunch “theSpoke” – Microsoft’s online community for technology students to collaborate, discuss and connect with each other. theSpoke is also the online host of the Imagine Cup competition.

Dissolving Boundaries Within

When it’s all over, many of the participating students will continue pursuing their dreams. The Imagine Cup already has a track record of launching careers. Consider Tu Nguyen, who won the 2003 Software Design invitational for developing an application designed to bridge the language gap between English-speaking waiters and Vietnamese-speaking chefs at his parents’ Vietnamese restaurant in Omaha, Neb. After receiving a number of job offers, Nguyen went on to open his own consulting company based on his Imagine Cup application.

Many of this year’s finalists plan to invest their prize money in further IT education, in implementing their Imagine Cup projects, or in new business ventures. All say their experiences in the Imagine Cup have taught them lessons that will help them in those plans. For ProGreen’s Venkataraman, competing in the Imagine Cup forced his team to go deep in their understanding of their business model: “We brainstormed every aspect of it. This will be very helpful when we go ahead and implement the project.”

Ng, who wants to be a strategy architect for an international computer company, says pursuing his Imagine Cup projects while cramming for important high-school exams was a valuable learning experience. “Striking a balance between the two of them made me realize the importance of self-discipline and time-management skills,” he says.

Topala says teamwork and management skills were the order of the day for team A.I. Core. “We discovered that in a real working environment a team/project manager has a very difficult job, because he is dealing with people, not machines, and people suffer from stress and sometimes crash.”

As for the Yokohama event, all of the students say they are eagerly anticipating it. “It will be an eye-opener for us to visit Japan and be ambassadors of our country at such a prestigious international forum,” says Venkataraman. “We look forward to meeting people from across the world and sharing our ideas. It’s sure to be a great learning experience for all of us — and a lot of fun.”

Imagine Cup 2005 Winners (IT Business Plan, IT High School, Web Development and Web Development High School)

The Imagine Cup 2005 IT Business Plan Invitational world champions, winning $8,000, $4,000 and $3,000 respectively (U.S.), are:

The Imagine Cup 2005 IT High School Invitational world champions, winning $5,000, $2,000 and $1,500 (U.S.) respectively, are:

The Imagine Cup 2005 Web Development Invitational world champions, winning $8,000, $4,000 and $3,000 (U.S.) respectively, are:

The Imagine Cup 2005 Web Development High School Invitational world champions, winning $5,000, $2,000 and $1,500 (U.S.) respectively, are:

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