Students always have been important to Microsoft —after all, Bill Gates was a student when he founded Microsoft 35 years ago. The  enthusiasm and limitless imaginations of young people have inspired, created and shaped many new products.

I’m general manager of Microsoft’s Education Products Group. As such, I have the good fortune to work with people who are devoted to helping students achieve their potential. I wanted to take a moment today to share a few ways that Microsoft is working with students to channel their natural creativity into brighter futures.

This past weekend, high school and college students descended upon Washington, D.C., to compete in the U.S. finals of the Imagine Cup, the annual technology student competition we sponsor. More than 22,000 students applied to be a part of this global competition; fewer than 100 were selected. This elite group demonstrated amazing  technology solutions that could change the world.  These aren’t flimsy science projects—these students invented projects to help fight poverty, enhance education, and clean up the environment. The winning group, Team Mobilife from the University of California, Davis, created an application that allows field doctors to use mobile technology for early detection of some vascular diseases among children in developing regions. Team Mobilife will compete for the world crown in Warsaw in July.

One reason we sponsor the Imagine Cup is to encourage and reward student interest in technology. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that by 2014 there will be more than 2 million job openings in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. But filling them will be a challenge. Even during the worst economic recession in decades, more than 300,000 technology-related jobs went vacant in 2009 due to a lack of qualified workers.

To help close that gap, Microsoft provides students free access to a number of professional tools and software titles through our DreamSpark program. We also partner with the  engineering organization IEEE. Once students brush up on their basic skills, we provide programs such as Students 2 Business, which connects students to jobs and internships. Through programs like these, we hope that the tech workforce becomes more robust in the years to come.

Of course, we recognize that not every one of the world’s 1.3 billion students aspires to be a scientist, developer, or programmer.  So in addition to the Microsoft products you might expect today’s young people to love—Xboxes, Zunes, Windows 7 PCs and the upcoming Kin Phones and Project: Natal—we have created some great programs to help students with all backgrounds and interests engage with Microsoft. The Microsoft Student Rally is one such program. The rally provides some easy-to-complete challenges for students, rewarding winning entries with scholarship money and prizes. And the Microsoft Student Lounge is a virtual comfortable couch where students can hang out, watch videos, and learn great tips and tricks on how to work smarter with the tech gear.

Students, who learn how to create technology, or how to make better use of it, are going to enjoy richer, fuller lives in the decades to come. It will be an exciting journey for them. And really, who can picture where it will take them? After all, a young Bill Gates could hardly imagine the Internet, or Facebook, or Natal. With the right technology tools, though, today’s students will be ready to meet any challenge. We want to ensure they have those tools.

Posted by Jon Perera
General Manager of Education