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Maltese students compete in Microsoft competition in South Korea

Four third-year B.Sc. (Hons) IT students specialising in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAI) stream, yesterday left Malta for Seoul, South Korea, to compete in Microsoft's fifth annual Imagine Cup competition this week.

Karl Fenech, Abigail Cauchi, Jennifer Fenech and Luana Micallef, who make up the Kablujen Digerati team, will compete against student teams from 50 other countries with their project 'KIKI'.

The team's participation is supported by Microsoft's Malta team and the Ministry for IT and Industry (MITI).

The theme for the Imagine Cup this year is education, and Microsoft has challenged participants to "imagine a world where technology enables a better education for all". They will compete for cash prizes totalling over $170,000, besides having the chance to be noticed by Microsoft's most influential key executives - which the Maltese team have already succeeded in doing.

KIKI - which stands for "Key to the Integration of Knowledge and Innovation" - is a fully integrated, simple, but highly adaptable system that allows teachers to make lessons in subjects such as Maths or English more interactive and fun. The students designed the system using, among others, Microsoft's recently-developed MultiPoint program that allows several mice to be used simultaneously on the same PC. In all its applications, the system features teacher and student login using virtual cards, real-time progress tracking, and inter-computer communication.

The students, aged 20 to 21, explained: "In our system, a central authority like the Education Ministry would maintain a repository to which state-commissioned or commercial developers may upload applications and content. Such applications (which may range from educational games, animated tutorials, homework exercises, and tools like dictionaries) would be seamlessly incorporated into the system and immediately made available within all classrooms for use by teachers and students."

A group of pupils at Zurrieq Primary School recently tried out KIKI's applications with great enthusiasm - much to their teacher's and the team's delight.

Kablujen Digerati go to Seoul after KIKI placed first in the East Mediterranean regional Imagine Cup competition, beating off teams from Cyprus, Jordan and Lebanon. It was the University of Malta's second consecutive regional Imagine Cup win; last year's team went on to compete in the India finals.

Meanwhile, KIKI has also impressed Microsoft executives, who have shown interest in the project. The team members have also been offered internships at Microsoft India where the MultiPoint program was developed. They intend to take up the placements after completing their theses in August next year.

Their tutor, Dr John Abela, is the liaison officer between the Department of Computer Science and AI, Microsoft, and MITI. He told The Sunday Times last week how he was approached by Microsoft Middle East three years ago about the Imagine Cup competition. A team from the University has been competing in the Imagine Cup for the past three years, after having won the local competition, beating teams from MCAST every year since.

"We made a decision at departmental level to encourage students (in groups) to compete in the Imagine Cup," said Dr Abela, who is responsible for organising, supervising, and co-ordinating the Imagine Cup competition within his department. "This year we had seven groups. I then picked the 'winning group' and this group has now made it to the world finals. This year I had the idea of creating a MultiPoint application and four of the seven competing groups, including the winning group, chose to develop a MultiPoint application."

Kablujen Digerati is made up of four remarkably talented young people who undoubtedly have bright futures ahead of them. One of the students, Luana Micallef, is currently on a scholarship in Switzerland and is travelling to Seoul separately.

From the outset, Dr Abela had "great hopes" for their project, which uses MultiPoint as an 'enabling' technology. KIKI is widely adaptable to a variety of scenarios, languages and age groups and the sky is the limit as far as its potential is concerned. It is so versatile, it could be hugely beneficial to children in the Third World.

"It enables children all over the world, in particular in developing countries, to access and share a common PC and to have a common learning experience," Dr Abela pointed out.

"Instead of one student using the mouse and keyboard and the others looking on and progressively becoming bored and losing interest, all the students sitting around a PC can participate. It appears that Microsoft shares my enthusiasm for this project."

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