Fifth Annual “Skins Challenge” Highlights Student Creativity and Technical Savvy

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 9, 2006 – Over the past four years, there has been a downward trend of computer science’s popularity as a major among incoming freshmen at undergraduate institutions, according to results from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The number of women expressing interest in computer science shows an even more dramatic decline.

Dr. James H. Johnson, Jr., dean and professor of civil engineering at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the most prominent of America’s historically black universities and colleges, believes that these trends are due in part to a spike in computer science interest during “Y2K” days and the dot-com boom, then falling sharply after the year 2000 and the collapse of the dot-com bubble. “What the public sees is that people with IT degrees are losing their jobs, so they begin to pursue other majors,” he explains. “But what has happened is, the utility of IT throughout all industries has actually increased. So more jobs have been created, but now there’s a shortage of qualified people to employ.”

One of the goals of the Howard University Microsoft Windows Media Player Skins Challenge, sponsored by Howard University, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Microsoft, is to get minority youth interested in technology by showing them how challenging, fun and exciting the field of IT can be. This year, the challenge was, for the first time, open to high school students attending three Los Angeles public high schools as well as all registered students – regardless of major – attending universities and colleges with a NBSE chapter.

This has already created very real results. “Microsoft has a vested interest in raising the profile of computer science to a wide range of people, because there is such a decline in enrollment of computer science majors in the U.S.,” says Keith Toussaint, a program manager in the Windows Digital Media Division at Microsoft and a Howard alumnus. “We are always interested in getting the best students to work here. Last year the number of students hired by Microsoft from Howard was the highest ever, and the majority of them were engaged in this program at one point or another.”

Continuing in this tradition, this year’s Skins Challenge winners, Munyiri Kamau, Paul Onakoya and Chi Owunwanne, all seniors at Howard University – have each secured jobs at Microsoft once they graduate. “Paul and I have always been interested in working at Microsoft, and we interned there,” explains Owunwanne. “We got noticed because of our participation in the Skins Challenge in previous years. Munyiri hadn’t considered working at Microsoft until he entered the competition and spoke to the recruiters. So it works both ways.”

Their skin “Ngao,” which is Swahili for “shield,” distinguished itself with its visual effects – it seemed to be constantly moving – as well as its technical savvy. The three teammates created an application that would enable the user to view the lyrics of the song playing, with the click of a button. Kamau, Onakyoa and Owunwanne were also last year’s winners.

Microsoft Windows Media skins are graphical user interfaces that use graphic art and technology to customize the appearance and features of the Microsoft Windows Media Player, which includes volume and play controls, play lists, animations, equalizers, progress bars, sound effects and visualizations.

“It’s important to note that the vast majority of the skins created are not part of the students’ required coursework,” says Toussaint. “So they’re just doing this work because they are passionate about technology, interested in expressing themselves creatively and technically. All of those are things Microsoft is interested in promoting.”

When Kayra Hopkins, Nicole Elaine Epps and Sara Hazle of Spelman College in Atlanta first heard Dr. Todd Shurn, associate professor of systems and computer science at Howard University, speak about the challenge, they could not have predicted that their time and effort would result in their team being one of the six finalists in the competition – as well as being the only all-female team to make it that far – but they hoped. Those hopes became a reality with their skin, “Mountain,” depicting accomplished African Americans.

“The most rewarding part of the Challenge was seeing our ideas come to life,” says Hopkins. “To be able to view our skin on multiple computers and have them be enjoyed and appreciated by others.” Previous experience creating skins was not an issue. “I had never considered making a skin before, and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” she says.

The Skins Challenge enables students to enhance their skills in graphic arts, theme development and image design, while at the same time creating innovative technology customized to their culture and personal tastes. For example, one of the finalists, a team from Melrose High School in Memphis, Tenn., created a skin called “Awareness,” which featured various facts and statistics about the AIDS disease.

This year’s judges included Nichol Bradford, global director of strategic growth at Vivendi Universal Games; Leonard Washington, president of Paramount Digital Entertainment; and Malcolm Player, the 2004 Skins Challenge winner, from North Carolina A&T University. They voted on skins based on representation of a theme from culture, entertainment or education in a manner consistently reinforced by appearance, audio effects and operation. Emphasis was placed on the skin’s utility as a media player interface and its innovation using Microsoft Windows Media Player 10 features.

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