Can you imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems? After this year’s Imagine Cup, we’ll have the good fortune to witness the ideas of the more than 300,000 students empowered to use technology, innovation and creativity to help solve some of the world’s most challenging social issues outlined in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

For the first time in the Cup’s 10-year history, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) will participate. Tara Walker, Microsoft’s academic development evangelist, was on a crusade of sorts to ensure that HBCUs were recruited to be a part of the 2011 Imagine Cup, the world’s premier tech student competition sponsored by Microsoft. “I work for a developer and platform evangelist group at Microsoft. The whole purpose of our team is to make sure that we get the word out, evangelize, dot net technology — the architecture around development and software engineering. In my role, I am focused on colleges and universities [as it relates] to technology,” she says.

Walker has a computer science degree and previously worked as a software engineer before becoming an evangelist for the technology giant. She explains how she chose a technology career, which, statistically, is a nontraditional career for minorities and women. “When I was in school, I first majored in finance. I was totally bored. My uncle visited me at school and reminded me that I tinkered with computers and said, ‘that seems to be something that you really liked to do.’  The next quarter I enrolled in the classes [related to the computer science major] and was like a ‘fish in water.’ ”

Why did the Atlanta native deem it necessary to present this career-changing opportunity to students at predominantly black colleges?

Walker realized after perusing a list of top schools with engineering programs that in previous years, HBCUs weren’t competing in the Cup. “Microsoft is a company that values diversity. I went to my boss and said that we needed to expand the program and see if the HBCUs would be interested. He agreed and I reached out to Spelman first, during Geek Week. The students were very receptive. Then we reached out to other HBCUs in the southeast,” she says.

Earlier in March, Tuskegee University demonstrated their projects and the dean of engineering, Dr. Lee Burge, adopted Imagine Cup as a part of the curriculum. This week, Atlanta-based Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and Morehouse College have fielded teams to compete in Imagine Cup. On March 23, they will present their solutions and Microsoft will conduct a meeting for HBCU presidents and chief information officers about Microsoft programs centered on college students. –yvette caslin