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Sunday
Mar042012

Hacking Imagination

The Imagine Cup is an annual competition run by Microsoft for groups of students to develop technology solutions to real world problems. This year has seen the launch of a North East regional heat of the competition, funded by Sunderland Software City and organised by Codeworks. The winners of the heat will get through to the UK finals in the software design category and compete for a place at the worldwide finals in Sydney, Australia.

On Friday 17th Feb, the teams of students from the NorMAN universities and FE colleges were bussed to a secret location (Redworth Hall Hotel, near Newton Aycliffe) to take part in a 36 hour hack to develop their ideas with industry mentors and attend workshops on topics ranging from project management to presentation skills.

I had been asked to be a mentor and drove down for the Saturday (after the teams and some of the other mentors had already been on the go for over 20 hours). What I found, apart from a dozen teams of fairly sleepy students, were some excellent ideas and a lot of enthusiasm, not just for the competition, but a genuine desire to bring positive change through the application of technology. The enthusiasm level was bumped up by Microsoft UK's Ben Nunney (a previous UK winner of the Imagine Cup) who talked about last year's global final in NYC, where Steve Ballmer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Eva Longoria were in attendance and Microsoft hired the whole of Ellis Island for a party!

For the last 12 hours of the hack, I had the opportunity to sit down with most of the teams of students, to hear their ideas and give them a few pointers on how to progress their entries. I also got to sit with a few of them through two of the workshops - really excellent sessions that I took a lot away from, and were (I suspect) far better than many lectures the students attend.

At the end of the event, after each team had given a 5 minute presentation about their entry, Ben asked who had had fun and learned something - every hand was up in answer to both questions, and he was quick to point out to the students that that included every mentor.

The whole experience was really inspirational; a sentiment that has been echoed on blogs and Twitter by the other mentors and organisers. If you get the opportunity to get involved with something like this, I can't recommend it enough. Until you get that chance, you can follow the progress of this year's teams at www.imaginecupnortheast.co.uk or via Twitter: @imaginecupne. You can also see some of the fun you missed in this photo album on Facebook.

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