A new Imagine Cup competition has been launched. This one challenges young students aged 9 and up to design games with Kodu.
The motivation for involving kids as young as 9 in the high-profile Imagine Cup competition is to address the STEM skills gap:
Due to the shortage of STEM graduates, careers including computer programming, software design and technology platform development may go unfilled in coming years. Microsoft created the Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge as part of the nationwide movement to change that trend.
Like other Imagine Cup competitions, the Kodu Challenge has an eco-friendly theme - explore the relationships between water and people through the medium of Kodu video games.
Kodu Game Lab is a "kid-friendly" visual programming language. developed by Microsoft Research Fuse Labs it is a free Windows PC software package that lets kids create their own games.
Kodu is widely acknowledged as a good way to get kids involved in programming at an early age. The new Code.org site, established with the idea of encouraging US schools to teach computing that was endorsed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and others, included it as one as its resources.
The previous Kodu Cup Contest was organized by Microsoft as a US-only competition. The game that won the Grand Prize came from Hannah Wyman, a 10-year old girl. Called Toxic, players collect coins and hearts while solving puzzles to help save the environment. In Hannah's own words: “My game is about how the environment is getting polluted, and we need to help shut the factories down and cause less pollution".
As well as winning a cash prize and a trip to the 2011 Imagine Cup, Hannah also got the opportunity to meet President Barak Obama and perhaps influenced him in his conviction that programming should be taught in schools.
The new Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge is available around the world and there are cash prizes: $3,000 for 1st place, $2,000 for 2nd and $1,000 for 3rd in the two age bands 9-12 and 13-18. The deadline is May 17 but some of the contest's supporting materials, videos exploring real projects from Mercy Corps, a nonprofit NGO that saves and improves lives during crisis, are only going to be available in April.
A new version of Kodu Game Lab is, however, in place, with a new character Octo, an octopus with touch screen capabilities, and other features such as water-current generators created specifically for the contest.
Including the Kodu challenge as part of the Imagine Cup opens the competition to a huge potential audience and raises the profile of Kodu, which is very popular in the parts of the world where it is known but almost unheard of in other parts.
Microsoft also appears to have woken up to the approaching crisis of insufficient STEM graduates.It recently introduced challenges to try to encourage female students to get involved in the Imagine Cup, and broadening the age range in this way is perhaps even more likely to get girls interested in computer science as a career opportunity.