Health heroes and soap stars

October 13, 2006

Alison Utley talks to participants in the Imagine Cup competition about their experiences

Undergraduates are well known for their idealism, and a competition sponsored by Microsoft aims to channel students' desires to change things for the common good into technologies that make the world a better place and improve people's lives.

Microsoft devised the Imagine Cup four years ago to challenge students to turn their creativity to finding new ways to solve global problems with the help of cutting-edge software. The ideas are judged by a team of experts; the best can gain worldwide exposure and, more important, help people to improve their lives.

Kevin McDaniel, group evangelism manager for Microsoft, says that the competition demonstrates that "software, like the internal combustion engine, is a tool that could solve real problems and has the potential to create heroes for the future of our industry".

The theme for the 2006 competition was health - "Imagine a world where technology enables us to live healthier lives." Competitors were encouraged to interpret the theme widely. They could apply their efforts to pursuing a major medical breakthrough or to something less spectacular but equally vital to health, such as providing clean drinking water, so long as their work involved innovative and elegant ways to apply technology to improve people's health.

This year's winning idea, which was announced in New Delhi in August, came from an Italian team from the Polytechnic of Turin that devised a project called Hello World that helps doctors build a new relationship with patients suffering from memory-related disorders.

Rob Miles, a lecturer at Hull University, has no doubt that the benefits of the Imagine Cup reach well beyond the students directly taking part. "Computer science as a subject is not as sexy as it was a few years ago, and undergraduate recruitment is on a downward trend nationally," he says. "We need to fire up young people, and this competition gives us a chance to show prospective students how they can get involved in something genuinely rewarding."

The competition is stiff (the 2006 contest attracted 65,000 hopefuls from 100 countries), but Miles has a successful record. He was academic mentor to the winning team in the UK this year, and he got two other teams into the final. "The secret is to get the students to learn how to sell their idea," he says. "Presentation and good communication skills are every bit as important as coming up with a great idea. The standards are incredibly high."

Hull has made impressive showing in the competition. Mat Steeples, a member of the 2004 winning team, Team Faraday, also attended the university. He was pleasantly surprised by the professional attitude of the competition organisers. "Program managers and developers from different areas of Microsoft's software development teams were on hand to answer any questions. Going to Brazil to represent the UK in that year's worldwide finals just topped it all off. A whole week was spent in a country I probably would not have visited otherwise."

A qualifying round identifies the best UK teams, which then go on to the worldwide finals. Ten teams are chosen to exhibit and demonstrate their initial solutions to an audience of academics in the UK. The three best are invited to make a 20-minute presentation of their solution to the judging panel. After the event, the national winner is supported over the following months to develop their solution for the worldwide final.

Miles's 2006 team spent a day talking to an intensive-care doctor about the problems of running a busy hospital department. Together, they came up with a hand-washing tracker. A counting device inside a soap dispenser is linked to a badge worn by medical staff. The badge devised by the team sounds a warning beep when the wearer approaches a patient's bed if he or she has not washed their hands.

"I tell my students I don't want them to be programmers for the rest of their lives, I want them to be able to come up with solutions people want," Miles says. "We find the students get very motivated and engaged because they are tackling a genuine problem."

Students need to be prepared to put in a great deal of effort - at least a month's work just to get the initial presentation ready. They must have an original idea or concept ("We get them to Google everything before they even start") that is workable, and they need to test it thoroughly. That makes it fun, and the rewards are worth striving for, too. Miles adds:

"Whether or not you are the winner, getting involved with the process is a huge learning curve in itself. Students have to persuade the judges and high-level people at Microsoft that their ideas are credible and useful and that they work. It teaches them how to become a professional and connects them with the outside world."

Perhaps most important of all, being involved in such a high-profile competition puts the student's name on the radar - and their university becomes associated with success. Stuart Slater, a cup mentor and senior lecturer in IT and computing at Wolverhampton University, stresses the importance of teamwork. Drive and enthusiasm form the basis of the best teams, he says. "The Imagine Cup clearly showed that all students could achieve more than anyone thought possible with the right kind of support from Microsoft, their mentors and, most important, from their fellow teammates."

Peter McOwan, director of teaching computer science at Queen Mary, University of London, is another enthusiast who describes the winning formula: "Brilliant minds + state-of-the-art technology + bags of creativity + (hard work and enthusiasm) ^n = the Imagine Cup. Oh, and did I mention fun and prizes? A unique life experience - get involved!"

His thoughts are echoed by Paul Rhodes, lecturer in computing at the School of Informatics at Bradford University. "If you enjoy software development, have a real passion for technology and enjoy pitting your wits against the best, plus a bit of travel at someone else's expense, this is for you. But you need to be very good."

Steve Neely, lecturer in computer and information sciences at Strathclyde University, says the Imagine Cup is a unique experience that offered teams the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies and equipment supported by world-class experts. "All the students had a fantastic time, worked and played harder than they thought possible and found the entire event massively rewarding," he says. "Universal feedback from them was overwhelmingly positive, and they couldn't wait to enter again."
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