While World Cup fever sweeps the globe, another competition is about to get underway that promises to deliver even more thrilling results than a world-class soccer tournament. Finals of the Imagine Cup, taking place in early July in Warsaw, Poland, will bring together top student teams from 100 countries. Their challenge: use technology to solve some of the world's thorniest challenges.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, whose company sponsors the event billed as the world's largest software design competition, says the Imagine Cup is the kind of experience where "young people get switched on."
Connecting to the Real World
Although the event began several years ago, participation was flat until the competition was re-imagined to connect with UN Millennium Goals, according to Jon Perera, who heads global education strategy for Microsoft.
What happens when high school and college students are challenged to come up with solutions that improve health, reduce poverty, or boost literacy? They turn out in droves. "We went from 5,000 students to more than 300,000," Perera said. These socially-minded competitors have unleashed their thinking to design a mobile phone app that can screen for hearing loss, build a social network that helps relief workers reunite families after natural disasters, and imagine a number of other intriguing ideas that promise to help others.
Microsoft's sponsorship is an indicator of a bigger trend -- namely, the commitment by corporate leaders to get today's students ready to be tomorrow's capable and creative employees. The pipeline of computer scientists and software engineers is woefully inadequate to meet future demand, according to Perera.
Getting more students interested in technical careers, and preparing them to think innovatively, "is imperative to the success of our company," he says. Beyond that, Perera and colleagues "also happen to be parents and community members who believe that empowering students and teachers is the key to our future," he adds.
I sat down recently with Perera on the Microsoft campus to learn more about the Imagine Cup, as well as other projects in the pipeline for the education sector. Here are a few trends to watch for.
Expect More from Games
The massive gaming industry is powerful evidence that kids care about games. Getting more students interested in designing their own games could jumpstart their interest in programming. That's the theory behind Kodu, a visual programming language made specifically for programming games. Nine-year-olds are the target audience. Getting students -- girls, especially -- to think like programmers from a young age "could be a win for life," Perera predicts. First introduced for the Xbox, Kodu is now available for use on a PC platform and is being piloted with a network of schools.
Look to the Cloud
As Microsoft moves to cloud computing in a bigger way, we can expect more offerings for the education community. Live@Edu, for instance, competes with Google Apps for Education to provide free, collaborative online environments for teaching and learning. "We want to make it easy for schools move to the cloud," Perera says, "and help teachers become more effective" with access to the collaborative tools they will find there.
Kinect, just unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, promises to bring controller-free gaming into the home. Instead of using a controller, users navigate with body movements and spoken commands. "It makes the user interface more human-centered," Perera says. The commercial release later this year is all about consumer entertainment, but Perera predicts future applications for education. Think online simulations, distance learning, and other situations where the learner can be immersed in a rich, 3-D environment.
Harnessing these new tools for teaching and learning is going to take creativity, problem solving, and all the other 21st century skills we hear so much about. Judging from the finalists of the Imagine Cup, there's no shortage of innovative thinking among today's students. Given the opportunity to put their smarts to work for causes they care about, they are capable of dazzling ideas.
Curious what these young programmers and budding computer scientists have in mind? Take a look at the videos produced by finalists in this year's Imagine Cup, and then cast your vote for the People's Choice winner. Better yet, share this site with your students and get them thinking about their own ideas for world-changing solutions.