Skip to main content
June 20, 2012

Getting students to solve world issues via tech

A beauty of youth and young adulthood is that they often come with a spark to challenge norms, to break boundaries and to fuel big dreams that rethink the way things are done. That’s exactly what Microsoft is harnessing through the Imagine Cup, a technology competition that challenges high school, college and university students to come up with new solutions for the toughest social and environmental challenges on the planet. 

The competition has been running globally since 2003, and this year’s theme was to “imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.”

The competition helps unleash ingenuity, and harnesses the youthful rebellion against conformity and unwillingness to turn a blind eye to pressing issues. Challenges like these not only inspire the next generation to have purpose, but they also give students permission to break the mould, to test new perspectives against old ones, and to reward them for their efforts.

Image via Twylah

Today’s younger generations grew up with stories about entrepreneurs and innovators who are heralded for breaking rules and defying norms, and they’re devouring biographies on people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Innovation and entrepreneurship have become more alluring in the wake of these widely shared success stories. Further, having grown up with the Internet, these generations have never known a world where they weren’t connected to an infinite amount of information, and to ever-expanding global social circles, all at the swipe of a finger.

Asking students to solve the world’s problems not only taps into the innate open-mindedness of youth, but it also leverages a new generation’s tech-savvy resourcefulness. The competition also ignites their drive to create positive change, a trait that’s growing as evidenced by the millions of dollars they’re donating to charitable crowdfunding platforms and the purchase of socially-minded brands.

Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft and a renowned philanthropist, was quoted on the Imagine Cup website saying, “I wish there had been an Imagine Cup when I was growing up. It gets people involved in seeing that software is changing the world.” 

The Microsoft Imagine Cup finalists arose from entries from 70 countries, whose innovations were entered in the categories of Software Design, Game Design: Xbox/Windows, Game Design: Phone, IT Challenge, Kinect Fun Labs Challenge, Windows Metro Style App Challenge, Windows Azure Challenge and Windows Phone Challenge.

Each project was required to address one of the following social or environment goals:

1. Resource Utilization
2. Environmental Health; and/or Community Health
3. Green Initiatives: Recycling Efforts, Recovery Efforts, Energy+ Conservation

Exceptional ideas poured in from over 70 countries, but since the Windows Phone Challenge was sponsored by Nokia, we thought we’d focus in on that category with a few winning concepts:

Windows Phone Challenge finalists

  • The Imagine Cup 2012 Cyprus finalists, Team BrightSight, developed the Braille Messenger, which enables visually impared people to communicate fluidly via text through a Windows Phone Braille app.
  • In Pakistan, 11,000 students competed this year, but the finalists were members of Team Celoks who presented what they call Project SEED, an app that addresses world hunger through crowdsourcing. “Users can quickly identify places in need of food or where excess food might be available,” the Imagine Cup blog explains. “Furthermore, if the users are food donors they can advertise their location and the amount of food they are willing to donate, allowing for easy pickup by those in need.”
  • In Armenia, Team mLab came up with Clean H2O, which lets Windows Phone users test water quality to see if it’s safe for consumption. The data can then be sent to a database for others (including experts) to identify regions where water is clean, and where waterborne diseases may be prominent.
  • Team Spectrum in Croatia developed IndoorVision, an application for the visually impaired that uses Windows Phone motion sensors to identify indoor obstructions like walls and furniture through spoken instructions.
  • The winners of East & Southern Africa were members of Team Cipher256 who created a Windows Phone app called WIN-SENGA to help assistant midwives. “The algorithm they used does a conversion of frequency (Hertz) to beats-per-minute of the fetus, its respective position in the uterus and the approximate age of the respective fetus and records all these readings to Windows Azure,” the blog explains.
  • Team StethoCloud from Australia came up with an innovation to detect pneumonia early. The StethoCloud works by linking a stethoscope with a Windows Phone, allowing even those who aren’t doctors to digitally transmit a patient’s breathe information to a cloud where it can be analyzed to catch early warning signs.

If you had the opportunity to dream up (and work with a team to create) a world-changing technology, what social or environmental issue would you like to address?