For college basketball players, it’s the NCAA Tournament. For aspiring pop stars, it’s American Idol. But for tech students, there’s no bigger challenge than the Imagine Cup.

Picture a room filled with the brightest, up-and-coming technology leaders and their world-changing innovations. This weekend that dream will become reality as 22 teams of top-notch tech students descend on Redmond for the Imagine Cup U.S. Finals. By Monday evening, Microsoft will select one lucky team to represent the United States at the Imagine Cup 2011 Worldwide Finals in New York City in July.

Nearly a decade old, the Imagine Cup is the world’s premier student technology competition, attracting hundreds of thousands of students every year to attempt to use technology to solve the world’s toughest problems. Not to be confused with your average science fair, the Imagine Cup is about creating real software, applications and devices for solving real problems in areas including healthcare, education and the environment.

To provide just a small sample of what these students are capable of, this year participants from the U.S. created software to help visually impaired students take notes in class, a mobile app to detect malaria, and a supply chain system for humanitarian efforts.

The software they create belongs to the teams that created it, and many former competitors have gone onto to commercialize their solutions. One example is Team GINA from the Czech Republic. They developed the Geographical INformation Assistant (GINA), a software system for mobile equipment that provides navigation in difficult terrain and helps coordinate rescue teams and exchange geographical information. The GINA system has been deployed in Haiti to track the spread of cholera, and today it’s being used to help rescuers map areas in Japan that were affected by the devastating earthquake and tsumani.

Team GINA is just one example of how the Imagine Cup exposes students to the power of technology and the impact it can have on ordinary citizens around the world. But in addition to its social impact, the competition also helps students build their technology skills so that they are better prepared to enter the workforce or even launch their own start-up.

According to IDC, 77 percent of jobs in the next decade will require technology skills. Yet, fewer than 15 percent of U.S. college undergraduates are currently pursuing degrees in science or engineering—compared to more than 30 percent in India and more than 40 percent in China. The long term effects of this conundrum will be felt by everyone in the IT industry, not just Microsoft.

Through the Imagine Cup, Microsoft is helping prepare today’s students to be successful in careers in IT. More than 74,000 students from 422 schools registered in the United States alone, up from 22,000 last year, which is phenomenal year over growth and perhaps a sign that the tide is turning.

Want to be inspired by these amazing students? I encourage you to check out all of the U.S. finalist teams here. You can even vote for your favorite.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Microsoft.