I know the day will come when I read about the growing numbers of students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instead of always seeing stories about the current education crisis. There are many ideas out there for how education leaders worldwide can make sure their students are prepared to compete in the global economy and pursue careers in information technology where there is a growing need for workers.

At Microsoft, we are very focused on making a difference in this area – from our involvement with organizations in the United States like the Boys and Girls Club to bring technology access to underserved youth -- to ways we are tapping young people’s imagination and curiosity with technology and encouraging them to get involved through our Imagine Cup and DreamSpark programs.

Exploring the universe we live in is just one way…a fun way, I might add…to get students excited about science and help them build STEM expertise and other 21st century skills like problem solving and teamwork. Today, at our Professional Developers Conference (PDC), Microsoft and NASA announced the “Be a Martian” web site…an interactive destination built on the Windows Azure platform that allows visitors to pan, zoom and explore Mars. Based upon data collected by NASA’s Mars missions, and stored on Microsoft’s cloud services technologies, “citizen scientists” can help create a complete and accurate map of the Red Planet using simple online tools and take part in research tasks.

As part of the project, NASA and Microsoft are also cosponsoring the Pathfinder Innovation Challenge. The challenge beckons software developers at all levels of proficiency, and as young as 14-years old, to win prizes for creating tools that provide simplified access to, and analysis of, hundreds of thousands of Mars images for online, classroom, and even Mars mission team use.

We hope this can be another tool in a teacher’s arsenal to inspire students to become life-long learners in science.