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It's easy to pick on Microsoft. The once-powerful software company looks somedays like an also-ran, largely failing to have made the transition to the Web and to mobile as the rest of the major tech companies have. Even with all the praise for the Kinect and the latest version of IE, and even with plenty of diehard fans of the Windows OS and the Office productivity suite, Microsoft doesn't always much feel like the future.

But I've spent the last four days in New York, watching the finals of Microsoft's Imagine Cup, and I have to say, I feel like I saw a glimpse of the future there. It's not a .NET future. It's not a Windows Phone 7 future. It's not an Azure future. It's not even a Kinect future. Rather that future is engaging young students in the pursuit of STEM careers, and in the case of the Imagine Cup, encouraging them not simply to build businesses but to solve real world crises.

Yes, the participants were required by to build their products using Microsoft technology, but that's hardly surprising for a corporate-sponsored event and Microsoft isn't alone here in stipulating those sorts of rules. The Google Science Fair, which also announced its winners this week, similarly required its participants to utilize Google Docs for their entries. The New York Times' Claire Cain Miller suggested Google's Science Fair was simply an effort on the part of the search engine to win the hearts and minds, if you will, of younger students (and future customers). Okay. Perhaps. But as I wrote in a response to Cain Miller, "Maybe Google's ulterior motive is to get students to identify with 'brand Google,' or maybe the company has an authentic interest in progressing science, tech, and math education. And maybe those two things aren't mutually exclusive.'

Like at any big tech gathering, the Imagine Cup did feature plenty of brand-pumping and brand-enthusiasm. Participants each got a Kinect. Participants each got a Windows Phone 7. The Google Science Fair winners, for their part, walked away with Chromebooks.

We can be critical about all of this, to be sure. And I asked several of the teams at the Imagine Cup about the choices they made (or couldn't make, and still be eligible) in their tech infrastructure. They offered different responses: the mobile game teams talked about plans to port their games to iOS and Android. Other teams insisted that they could only have built their designs with Microsoft products. And still others, aware of course that there is indeed a whole world of programming languages, frameworks, software outside Microsoft, worked to make their products interoperable and to include open course rather than proprietary tech. There was, in fact, an award for doing so. The bottom line for the developers, as in any project, is to use what works. And the bottom line for companies, as Hal Plotkin, Senior Policy Advisor in the Under Secretary of Education, made clear in the closing remarks he made at last night's award ceremony is that they need to step up and make the investment in these sorts of endeavors. It's good for STEM education, not just in the US but globally. And as the projects submitted to the Imagine Cup must tackle the UN's Millennium Goals -- poverty, hunger, disease, infant mortality, environmental destruction, and so on -- it's good for the world.

And it's great for these students. I was incredibly impressed with their ability, not just to come up with an idea and execute on it, but to then pitch it to the judges, in what was for many of them a foreign language. I think the sort of mentorship process that goes on with the Imagine Cup is crucial as well. Students need to learn how to work in teams, sure, but they also need to be able to identify mentors and customers who can deliver the right feedback so that projects in turn solve the right problems.

I hear a lot of backlash when it comes to the value of a university education, particularly in terms of computer science, and so the ball isn't just in tech companies' court here either. Universities need to do more to help give students these sorts of practical experiences. How do we help students learn the necessary technology skills? How do we help them think about how these will apply to research and business? How do we encourage bright young students to take on the most challenging problems and, in turn, change the world?

My coverage from the Imagine Cup

A Student-Built Game Helps Asthma Sufferers The Imagine Cup: Student-Built Technology Tackles the World's Most Pressing Problems Meet This Year's Imagine Cup Winners: Students Building World-Changing Tech Getting Young Girls Interested in Programming

Disclosure: Microsoft paid for my travel to New York City to cover this event.

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Audrey Watters


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