Education Idol: Students to Tackle World-Scale Problems at US Imagine Cup Finals

Editor’s Note, April 8, 2011 –
This article has been edited since publication to include a list of the 22 U.S. Imagine Cup 2011 finalists and their projects.

REDMOND, Wash. – April 6, 2011 – As millions of American Idol fans flock to vote for their favorite singer each week on a very popular American TV show, one top Microsoft educator aims to shift the spotlight to another group of talented young performers.

They aren’t singing, but they’re some of the country’s top young minds and their “performances” include tackling some of the world’s toughest problems with technology.

“What was it last week, 55 million people voted for the next American Idol?” asks Mark Hindsbo, Microsoft’s vice president of Developer and Platform Evangelism. “Without being facetious, I don’t know if the next big singer is as important to America as the next big software engineer.”

Hindsbo is among those who want to shine light on the need to get more young people interested in the tech sector, where the number of jobs continues to explode but the number of young people graduating with technology degrees to fill those jobs is not keeping up.

Imagine Cup, he says, is a way to show students that science, technology, engineering and math can not only be engaging and exciting, but that their work can make a big difference in the world.

Wilson To, a pathology graduate student at the University of California Davis and a 2010 Imagine Cup competitor, is among those who have been inspired by the Imagine Cup. “Competing in Imagine Cup was probably one of the best decisions of my life, to be honest with you,” To says.

He became involved in Imagine Cup in a rather roundabout way. As a volunteer Microsoft campus representative, he once spoke to more than 2,000 of his fellow students encouraging them to get involved in Imagine Cup, when someone raised their hand and asked him if he would be competing.

“It caught me off guard,” says To, who took the implied challenge and formed his own Imagine Cup team. That team – called Mobilife – went on to win the grand prize in Software Design at the 2010 U.S. Imagine Cup Finals and advance to the world finals in Poland.

Their project – which they’re still working on today – uses a mobile device’s camera as a microscope to examine blood vessels in the eye. This enables health care professionals to diagnose and track vascular diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and sickle cell anemia in situations where there isn’t a doctor’s office to go to for testing.

“It was my first time last year; I was just hoping to make it to the U.S. finals. It turned out better than that,” To says. “Even though we didn’t win in Poland, it really opened up so many doors for me – I met the president when I was invited to the White House in November and I got to show him what we were working on and chat with him briefly. That was definitely a highlight.”

The U.S. Imagine Cup is one of over 70 regional Imagine Cup events that are happening around the world this spring. The software design competition winners from each event will advance to the worldwide finals held in New York City in July.

When the students graduate from the Imagine Cup and their university programs, there will be plenty of jobs to go after in the IT industry, Hindsbo says.

Projections show there will be about 1.2 million new computer science/IT jobs in the United States by 2018, he says. Yet current trends show that the United States has only half the number of college graduates needed to fill those positions. Also, only about 15 percent of U.S. undergraduates are studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) compared to two or three times as many in countries such as India and China.

“The importance of technology for a country like the United States and the fact that we can currently only fill half the demand – that should be scary to anyone,” Hindsbo says. “But also, students don’t get terribly inspired by saying, ‘Hey, things are going to fall off a cliff if you don’t study technology.’ You enter the field because you have fun with it. That’s why things like Imagine Cup are so important – to show them that, and what other students are doing, and how they can help change the world.”

Tara Walker, a Microsoft academic developer evangelist, is constantly on the road – logging miles around Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi “and all of the universities in-between.”

Walker is in her second year of working as an Imagine Cup academic advisor, encouraging students at southern U.S. colleges to get involved, helping teams find direction once they form, and generally “spreading the good news” about Microsoft technology and developing for the company.

Instead of strictly lecturing students about how fun it is to develop, or giving them a handout, Walker runs something called “App Lab” where, in one session, she teaches students to create a basic Windows Phone 7 or Windows Azure application.

“This is not as hard as it looks,” Walker tells students. “You might never have imagined you’d build a Windows Phone 7 application, but you just did.”

Adds Walker, “We want them to build something, to learn something, to retain it. You get them coding and getting results. Then they can take that skill they just learned and use it to compete in Imagine Cup. Making students aware of the possibilities – that’s what we do on campuses, and that’s what Imagine Cup does.”

Microsoft isn’t the only company with a vested interest in the next generation. Zack Hicks, vice president and chief information officer for Toyota Motor Sales USA, says that along with educators, corporations have an obligation to find ways to ignite excitement about STEM education.

“Advancing STEM education also advances the betterment of our society,” says Hicks, who is a judge for the software design category at the Imagine Cup finals this weekend. “Technology and innovation are vital to making gains in the business world, but the benefits go much further. When we make gains as companies, like creating vehicles with smaller carbon footprints, it comes back full circle, spurring America’s innovation and economy so that ultimately, society wins.”

Hicks says he is looking forward to the excitement and energy this weekend, and that even with high expectations he knows he’ll be surprised at the caliber of the projects.

In addition to inspiring students to produce cutting-edge projects that tackle world problems, Imagine Cup also teaches skills that will help students gain insight into future job possibilities at companies such as Microsoft and Toyota.

“I am humbled to be a judge,” Hicks says. “I think it’s fantastic that Microsoft is sponsoring Imagine Cup as a way of giving back while inspiring youth who have fresh eyes to tackle society’s biggest challenges.”

With their fresh perspective, Vinny Lohan and his team saw past existing limitations in creating their 2010 Imagine Cup project OneBeep. Lohan and his team decided to capitalize on New Zealand’s “One Laptop Per Child” program, which would deploy 1.4 million laptops across the country, to create an inexpensive and simple way for the owners of those laptops to get content using AM radio waves – specifically books.

“We wanted to solve a big problem, but we didn’t want to start from scratch, so we chose illiteracy,” Lohan says. “Organizations deployed millions of laptops, but most of them are in areas with no Internet. Weren’t they then just a giant calculator?”

April 05, 2011
Tara Walker, an Imagine Cup academic advisor to students in Alabama, Georgia, Mississipi and Florida, prepares teams from Tuskegee University for a presentation to Macon County, Georgia, high school students.

OneBeep allowed students to plug their laptop into a radio to download books, which had been converted into sound in order to travel across AM airwaves, and upon download were then converted back into a readable file.

“We liked using real-world technology, stuff that is already out there, but in a way that helps people so they don’t have to depend on so many other factors to get information,” Lohan says.

In Jamaica, a team from Northern Caribbean University last year created Xormis, a Web system used to tighten the cycle for supply chain management – particularly for humanitarian relief efforts. The project won first place at the 2010 Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in the interoperability category.

“The idea came to us because we have families who are very poor,” says team leader Shawn McLean. “They have resources near them, and we wanted to find some way for them to know they have everything they need to get out of poverty. Nobody is there to tell them they can do that.”

Say there’s a candle factory that’s buying wax from people far away who have bees, McLean explains. Xormis can help the candle makers find closer, more cost-effective wax, and even help match the far-away beekeepers with another type of buyer for their wax that is closer to them. A year after winning at the Imagine Cup world finals, the team is fine-tuning their project to become a business.

Hindsbo says having students use their Imagine Cup projects to start businesses is exactly what draws him to Imagine Cup – both remembering the passion inspired by his first meeting with technology, and by helping students succeed.

“Time and time again I’ve seen students prove that three or four people with a good idea and some dedication can change the world, or at least make a significant difference,” Hindsbo says.

He is also enthusiastic about showing more students that technology can be fun – not only as a rewarding career, but as a world changer. Imagine Cup has drawn more and more competitors each year, and Hindsbo hopes it will continue to grow.

“We need the next generation to be successful, both as a nation and also as a company,” Hindsbo says. “Our company tagline is, ‘Be what’s next.’ While we have an incredible passion for technology, technology by itself is not going to be what’s next. It’s when technology meets people that you become what’s next, and you need the next generation of students to get there.”

The annual student event does a lot for the soul of Microsoft, Hindsbo says. “We were built on the belief that technology can change the world, and we want to be a part of that world – to help create that world, and to enable other people to help create that world.”

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