When Microsoft Corp.’s worldwide student software programming competition began four years ago, many projects that emerged were “fun,” according to Craig Mundie, the company’s chief research and strategy officer.

There was no shortage of smiles as Mundie and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates visited June 26 with some of the finalists from this year’s Imagine Cup. But the problems the university students’ projects addressed–education gaps in rural China, or the way blind and deaf students are shut out of mainstream classrooms–were much more serious than the music-player programs Mundie remembers from the early days.

A team of students from Egypt presented a program that converts classroom tests into different formats to suit students with different disabilities, such as dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder. A French group worked on a joystick-style mouse and software that helps students with physical disabilities participate in some activities, such as practicing “handwriting” on a computer screen.

“They have moved gracefully from entertainment to serious” subjects, Mundie said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Gates and Mundie spent a few minutes with each of the 10 teams that converged at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. The teams came from as far away as Hokkaido, Japan, and as near as Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. In August, these teams will compete with 100 other groups of finalists in South Korea for prizes of as much as $25,000. In all, the competition awards more than $170,000.

For many of the student programmers, meeting Gates was quite a rush.

“The best part was seeing Bill’s face and realizing he was genuinely interested,” said James Alexander, a 22-year-old who just graduated from the University of Hull in England. His team demonstrated a game that teaches young children to write computer code by asking them to control fish in an aquarium.

Eike Falkenberg, a 30-year-old German graduate student, liked the way Gates picked up the device his team demonstrated and started playing with it.

“He’s still like a little boy when he sees new technology,” he said.

While many of the students showed signs of strain trying to explain their projects to one of the most powerful men in their field (and in English, no less), Ji-hyeon Jeong, a 21-year-old Korean student, kept cool when her demo refused to start properly.

“I think it’s a problem with Vista,” she said, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd.

Links:

Imagine Cup

http://www.imaginecup.us