Students Make a Difference Through Innovation and IT Skills Development

REDMOND, Wash. — June 24, 2009 —Currently in its seventh year, the 2009 Imagine Cup challenges students to apply their imagination, passion, and creativity toward developing technology-based solutions that make a difference in the world today. More than 300,000 students from over 100 countries and regions in the world registered for this year’s event.

After competing in local and regional competitions, the top student teams will travel to Cairo, Egypt to participate in the 2009 Worldwide Finals from July 3-7. The students will showcase creative solutions that address the world’s toughest problems, as outlined by the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Winners of the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals (from left to right) Mark, Jimmy and, Luke Dickinson.

Among those heading to Cairo is Mark Dickinson, a member of Team MultiPoint WEB, winner of the U.S. Software Design category in this year’s Imagine Cup U.S. Finals. Dickinson is studying computer science at Portland Community College, a member school of the Microsoft IT Academy program, which helps colleges, universities and primary and secondary schools purchase the latest software tools and Microsoft curriculum at affordable prices.

Dickinson is joined on Team Multipoint WEB by his brothers James and Luke. The three developed a set of educational games that provide a collaborative learning environment, inspired by their experience growing up in a family of 13 children. Their solution supports one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals of providing universal primary education and is one way to tackle the shortage of computers in classrooms.

In response, Team Multipoint WEB developed a set of low- to no-cost, Web-based learning activities that build upon existing education systems and allow every student to participate using multiple mice on one computer. Their solution uses the Microsoft MultiPoint Software Development Kit (SDK), developed by Microsoft Unlimited Potential to provide underserved people with access to technology.

“Technology has the potential to help others learn and make it easier to work together through the spread of useful information,” says Dickinson. “I’ve been interested in technology for most of my life. In middle school I learned some Visual Basic, and have been learning more ever since. It’s gratifying to know I can contribute in that area and improve my own skills at the same time.”

Of the 149 teams participating in the 2009 Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals, nearly 10 percent are from schools belonging to the Microsoft IT Academy program. To support the Imagine Cup participants, Microsoft provided them with access to some of the same tools and resources available through the Microsoft IT Academy program. These resources, accessible via the Imagine Cup Web site, provide students with the training and technical skills they need to compete at the regional, national, and international levels of the competition.

“Microsoft is committed to helping students improve the world through the power of software and technical innovation,” says Lutz Ziob, general manager of Microsoft Learning.  “By providing relevant and fun technical training resources through the IT Academy program and the Imagine Cup, we are enabling the next generation of technology and business leaders to use their creativity and innovation to make a difference in peoples’ lives and the world.” 

Microsoft IT Academy: Providing Tools and Skills to Compete

In today’s economy, schools are making the most of scarce resources as budgets are stretched thin. Consequently, nearly 6,000 schools around the world are currently registered in the Microsoft IT Academy program, through which their students have affordable access to the latest technology and can become better equipped to compete in the job market. Three-quarters of Microsoft IT Academies surveyed recently report that the resources provided through the program improve students’ earning potential and their ability to secure a job.

“The Microsoft IT Academy program has very good tools to prepare our students for certification, which is very important to prepare them for future jobs,” said Arnaud Berthier, Microsoft Lab Director, SUPINFO International University. Based in Paris, SUPINFO is a global network of higher-education schools specializing in information and communications technology. SUPINFO graduates typically find employment within a month of graduating, with students earning an average starting salary of more than €36,000 (approximately US$46,000) upon graduation.

Microsoft IT Academies also connect classroom education with real IT experience by allowing students to work on current technologies and earn Microsoft certifications that help students explore and prepare for career opportunities. Through the Imagine Cup, students can access a variety of online Microsoft IT Academy resources. These include learning plans customized to student goals; Live Meeting sessions with Microsoft Certified Trainers; access to PDF files of more than 500 Microsoft Press books; and e-learning that provides Imagine Cup participants with 30 hours of access to a range of IT skills courses.

Those resources were put to good use by Tim Justice, who participated in the U.S. Imagine Cup Finals while attending Clarendon College in the Texas Panhandle. Out of the nine Clarendon students that competed, he was one of only two students to advance to the next level. Justice says the Microsoft IT Academy resources available through Imagine Cup were instrumental in helping him succeed. “The [IT Academy] resources on the Imagine Cup Web site are great. This year, Microsoft has provided a lot of great, real-time opportunities by not only giving us access to written materials, but providing plenty of software to work with. Without those resources, I would have been confined only to the environments I had worked in, with the computers I have.”

For Jack McCarty, faculty and Microsoft IT Academy instructor at Clarendon College, participating in the Imagine Cup is an essential part of the training his students receive. “The Imagine Cup is like an extension of our IT Academy,” he says. “The IT Academy offers a tremendous amount of tools and the Imagine Cup is one way to amplify and enrich the experience of the students. It helps them see the huge community we’re part of. We can make a difference and have a big part to play, even though we live in a rather isolated area of rural Texas.”

Denise Spence echoes McCarty’s sentiments. She is the Magnet Grant Technology teacher for Dunbar High School’s Academy for Technology Excellence. Located in Ft. Meyers, Fla., Dunbar High School was the first Microsoft-certified high school in the nation and currently offers information technology computer certifications in 12 areas.

Spence says that the Microsoft IT Academy tools available to students participating in the Imagine Cup help extend their learning environment from the classroom to home, especially the e-learning offerings. “I think the IT Academy complements the competition quite well,” she says. “And the resources offer the online experience and the IT Academy program provides an instructor who can answer questions or help structure the learning environment for students.”

Making a global difference

The skills that students learn through Microsoft IT Academies are doing more than helping them compete in the Imagine Cup and preparing them for the workforce. They’re also providing a vision of how those skills can be applied to make a difference in the world.

The theme of this year’s Imagine Cup thrusts students into the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed upon by 189 countries and regions more than eight years ago. The goals encompass some of the world’s most difficult challenges, ranging from reducing extreme poverty and halting the spread of HIV/AIDs to providing universal primary education. Microsoft is calling on young programmers, artists and technologists to develop solutions that will help fulfill these goals.

“What I liked about the Imagine Cup is that it makes us — a small, rural educational setting — part of the big global picture,” says Clarendon’s Jack McCarty. “It takes students who have no idea how much impact they could have and broadens their sense of potential by helping them realize that their individual accomplishments can make a global difference.”

For students such as Justice, the Imagine Cup has been instrumental in helping him achieve his goals. Justice is currently earning a degree in Computer Information Systems at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla., with the hope of working with a nonprofit organization.

Meanwhile, U.S. finalist Mark Dickinson is preparing to earn a Microsoft certification on .NET technology, an achievement that will enhance his studies and expand his career options. Participation in the Imagine Cup gave him the opportunity to apply the knowledge learned through school and certification studies, paving the way toward his future career. Meeting other students with similar goals has Dickinson excited about career possibilities in the Information Technology field.

“The thought that people could see some of my work in Imagine Cup and I can get something out there that they can actually use — that’s what got me the most interested. Our team’s goal is to release this project and at least make it self-sustaining. If we can get it out and get people using it, it would look great on my resume and help me move on to the next project,” says Dickinson.

Participating in the global IT community

The Imagine Cup participants are the future leaders of technology and business and their innovations are already making a difference in people’s lives. In return, their participation in the Imagine Cup is changing their perspective on what it means to be a part of a global IT community.

Says Dunbar: “The Imagine Cup definitely broadens the students’ horizons. The IT Academy resources are helping them expand their skill set and the competition is giving them a bigger scope of what they can do with their newly-acquired skills. It doesn’t just apply to high school but to their entire life.”

When combining these students’ creativity and passion with greater technical understanding, one can’t help but imagine.

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