Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Competition Seeks Diversity

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by Amara Phillip

After nine years, Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition boasts a strong international presence, with students from more than 70 countries competing this year. During the last two cup competitions, it fell to Tara Walker, an Academic Development evangelist at Microsoft, to ensure that HBCU and other minority-serving students had a place at the table.

Begun in 2003, Imagine Cup challenges undergraduates to use technology — with the aid of Microsoft platforms — to solve worldwide challenges. This year, students were tasked with creating programs that addressed the United Nations’ eight millennium development goals, which include ending hunger and poverty, access to universal education and environmental sustainability.

Though none of the teams from participating HBCUs made it to this year’s finals, the schools plan to send more teams to next year’s competition.

Walker also plans to expand her outreach. Initially, the decision to reach out to HBCUs was hardly an obvious one, she says.

During a July 13 ceremony in New York City, winners were announced in 10 categories.

“LifeLens,” a Windows Phone program that tests for malaria with 94 percent accuracy, won third place in the Windows Phone 7 design category.

In the Software Design Category, “Note-Taker,” which helps visually impaired students take notes quickly with the help of a portable camera and Microsoft OneNote, won second-place honors. The program was the brainchild of a legally blind Arizona State student. “Hermes,” a program designed by a group of students at the Institute of Technology Sligo in Ireland, won-first place. “Hermes” targets Ireland’s high-traffic mortality rate by using Azure Cloud technology to monitor road conditions, among other potential hazards.

Software evangelists cover specific geographic regions, giving demonstrations and making curriculum recommendations at top technology schools each area.

Though Microsoft has wide-ranging inclusion and diversity programs, none are specifically targeted to HBCUs.

“Typically in the history of HBCUs, they develop more as liberal arts colleges,” she says. “So they just weren’t on the radar for technology schools.”

Walker, an Atlanta native, set out to recruit HBCUs out of personal duty.

“Being an African-American, a lot of my family members are very centered around HBCUs,” she says.

Still, many at HBCUs say that STEM participation at their schools is far more robust than generally imagined.

“Morehouse has historically been producing the largest amount of African-American males who have gone on to produce doctorates in the sciences,” says Rahmelle Thompson, director of the John Hopps Scholar Research Program at Morehouse.

And at Spelman College, roughly 35 percent of undergraduates major in STEM areas. Jakita Thomas, an assistant professor of computer and information sciences at Spelman College, calls this statistic “remarkable.”

Thomas says that though HBCUs tend to have a holistic approach to education, their critical role in producing African-American STEM graduates is overlooked.

“When you have a liberal arts college, liberal arts colleges are really focused on developing the whole person, so they are less focused on a particular area,” she says.

Overall, students from six HBCUs — Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Howard, Tuskegee and Johnson C. Smith — participated in this year’s competition.

Tuskegee generated a staggering 16 Imagine Cup teams, a feat that Walker credits to Dr. Lee Burge, a professor of mechanical engineering at the university.

Burge used Tuskegee’s “Ethics in Engineering Course,” a gateway for all engineering majors, to introduce students to Imagine Cup deliverables.

Burge’s plan also extended to high school outreach. Two-hundred high school students from the Tuskegee, Ala., area attended “Realizing Our Dreams,” an event that included three Imagine Cup teams from Tuskegee.

Thompson says that Morehouse plans to send teams (with members culled largely from the Hopps program) to the Imagine Cup competition next year. But lack of funding could hamper their efforts. Imagine Cup, like all research-intensive endeavors, requires students to commit to work beyond traditional classroom hours.

“One of the things I’m dreaming of is to have a 24-hour lab available to students like Spelman has,” she says.

Morehouse students often have to trek to nearby Spelman to use the college’s research facilities, she says.

“We have the talented students. We have the committed faculty. It’s just that we need to update the labs that we have,” she says.

This year, Spelman produced what Thomas describes as “one and a half” Imagine Cup teams, with one Spelman student joining a team from Morehouse.

The Spelman team’s project, “MToto,” is a mobile application that tracks a woman’s progress during various stages of pregnancy. “MToto,” whose name is derived from the Swahili word for “baby,” is meant to address high rates of maternal mortality in rural Kenya.

Though Spelman’s teams did not make it to finals, Thomas says students will use the upcoming months to review feedback and refine their ideas for next year’s competition.

And the additional publicity could draw a flood of new competitors, she says.

“Next year, participation will double, if not triple,” she says.

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