Posted in Sydney sparks, WWWhat?

The Imagine Cup (runneth over with amazing ideas)

Last week, EverydaySparks received an invitation to attend the worldwide finals of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup 2012, here in Sydney. I must confess that I’d never heard of the Imagine Cup before this, but the very name appealed to my fondness for both competition and creative geekery. I was hooked. Turns out, the Imagine Cup is A REALLY BIG DEAL. This year saw its 10th anniversary as the world’s premier student technology competition, aimed at finding solutions to real-world problems. Uh huh.

Sydney flies the flag(s) for Imagine Cup 2012. [pic by EverydaySparks]
A truly global competition – since 2003, more than 1.4 million students have participated in the Cup. And it’s HUGE – last year, 358,000 students represented 183 countries in the competition. Just think of all of that brain power focussed on the key theme: Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems. And yesterday, as I spent the whole afternoon wandering around the last day of the Imagine Cup worldwide finals as a guest of Microsoft, I got a glimpse of that world. And let me tell you friends, it is freakin’ amazing.

French team ‘Ecosia’ chillaxing with a game of giant chess. [pic by EverydaySparks]
At the Imagine Cup, they’re University students – with a difference. They have all had to compete in intense knockout competitions in their home countries before making it to the worldwide finals. Not for them the student traditions of waking up after midday, trying to scrape together enough coins for the beer & pizza special at the local pub, and frittering away countless hours staring at the cracks on the share-house wall. Or maybe they do get to do all those things, it’s just that with the rest of their time (in addition to studying to pass the killer exams for their demanding technology courses), these kids do other stuff. You know, like DEVELOP A MOBILE APP THAT TURNS YOUR SMARTPHONE INTO A DANGEROUS EXPLOSIVES DETECTOR (way to go, Poland’s team ‘Armed’). Or, a fun game on your phone that teaches you all about RECYCLING AND ATMOSPHERIC POLLUTION (nice work, France’s team ‘Ecosia’). Then there’s the Australian team ‘StethoCloud’, with the clear goal of REDUCING CHILD MORTALITY FROM PNEUMONIA.

Were they expecting me? [pic by EverydaySparks]
I mean, seriously. Did you ever know of any students who thought about such things, let alone students who dedicated months and years of their lives to developing technology to address these world problems? I am in awe and left feeling a little guilty about spending my early 20s worried about utter nonsense. Instead of Alzheimers Disease, clean water, blindness and dyslexia, to name just a few of the Imagine Cup projects.

I’m going to save the detail of some of my favourite teams for other posts, but wanted to share the overall experience with you today – I’m still buzzing after an incredible day celebrating some amazing geeks of the world. And, not only are they super bright with brilliant, innovative ideas, but they are all required to present their projects to the tough panel of judges, running live demos and answering serious technical questions. IN ENGLISH. Which for the vast majority of the contestants is their second (or third or fourth) language. Unbelievable.

Matthew Doyle opens the Award Ceremony. [pic by EverydaySparks]
We were invited to the Award Ceremony, where the atmosphere was electric. Better than a concert, there were flags and inflatables and crazy chants as the students enjoyed the last hours of their magical Imagine Cup experience. As the backdrop to the stage changed from the Sydney cityscape to an outback sunset, a lone didgeridoo and the fabulous Bangarra Dance company gave the crowd an unforgettable traditional Australian experience. And then there were inspirational speeches (including Jessica Watson, round-the-world sailor and another amazing young person), awards, tears, hugs and lots of laughs. I tell you – if these kids are responsible for the future of our planet, I’ve never felt safer.

You can read all about Microsoft’s Imagine Cup here. And I’ll be posting more about some of the sparks I saw there in the coming days.

Posted in Sparks at work

Buona Pasqua (and The Sticker Economy)

This is the card that my niece Fox made this week in her Italian class (in her first year at high school), presumably to reassure the parents that the girls are at least covering the key festivities in their Italian lessons. The teacher (known as the mysterious “Prof C”) sounds like a truly eccentric Italian lady and it’s great to witness Fox’s Italian vocab and accent improving so quickly.

Prof C also appears to be running her classroom as a sort of alternate State, with its own currency – scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers. I didn’t even know that they made such things anymore, so perhaps the State is like a former Soviet territory, with slightly out-of-date music, fashion and stationery items. Anyhoo, the way the State economy works is thus: if you perform well in a test (8/10), then you are awarded one sticker to add to your workbook; if you perform really well in a test (10/10), then you are awarded two stickers to add to your workbook. At the end of the year, the person with the most stickers will receive a prize (very practically, a sticker book and a pencil case).

The first of four school terms has just finished and as yet it sounds as though there is no black market for scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers after class in the school hallways. But I like to think that by Term 3, some enterprising regazza will have worked out a way to trade stickers, upgrade stickers and possibly even forge stickers to supplement the workbooks of students who haven’t scored so well.

Or perhaps – like so many other economies built on big dreams – Prof C’s State will collapse in a dramatic meltdown by the year’s end. The market will be flooded with stickers, devaluing them and causing the weaker students to dance on the desktops with glee, while the advanced students shred their workbooks (neatly) into the bin of broken promises. Now that’s an education.