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Bill Gates kicks off college tour

Speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, the philanthropist and Microsoft chairman encourages students to get involved in society's big issues.

BERKELEY, Calif.--While the world faces enormous challenges feeding its populations, developing clean energy, and fighting diseases, many of its best and brightest citizens are focused on other issues.

That notion was reinforced for Bill Gates several weeks back as he sat with several friends who were engaged in a passionate discussion on two key topics: March Madness and the reforms being debated for Wall Street.

Click on the image above to see CNET's complete coverage of Bill Gates' College Tour.

The philanthropist and Microsoft chairman said he would like to see some of this brain power shifted to issues like education.

"How possible is it that we could be having this same intense conversation about how to make a teacher better," Gates said Monday during a talk at the University of California at Berkeley, kicking off a three-state college tour. "Are the brightest minds working on the hardest problems? I think the answer is probably not."

College students, with their youth and open minds, represent an important opportunity to get more people working on these issues, Gates said. Too many, he said are going into entertainment and other areas. Even those going to science, he noted, are often working on problems such as developing a cure for baldness.

"I'm not saying they should be banned," he said, noting that he is a big movie buff. Even curing baldness has its place. "I know people would be more fun to look at if they had a baldness drug."

Now playing: Watch this: Bill Gates' college road trip

But, shifting to the meat of his talk, Gates showed a single slide, the rate of decline in childhood deaths that came about from the advent of key vaccines. What's needed, he said is more vaccines and broader distribution of those that already exist.

Once you improve health conditions, Gates said, education is the next key, noting that economic success follows. However, even in the United States, he said, education is not keeping pace.

Of course, Gates noted that he never finished college. "I dropped out of school myself," he quipped. "I promised my dad I'd go back. I'm working that debt off one day at a time."

Following his speech, Gates has some private meetings with students and faculty before heading to a speech later in the day at Stanford University. On Tuesday, he'll travel to the University of Chicago, and on Wednesday he'll speak at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. CNET will be covering the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston area legs of the tour, including some of the behind-the-scenes action, and speaking to Gates himself.

Update 11:57 a.m. PDT: In the question-and-answer session, Gates was asked how a student who is graduating now and has a bunch of debt and no job can really help with these issues.

Gates said that although he knows it is a tough time for students, there are lots of jobs in the nonprofit sector, though they might not be the best-paying ones. He pointed to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as one example.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates looks at a video of a listeria bacteria strain as he tours a lab Monday after speaking at UC Berkeley. Ina Fried/CNET

"USAID has such a need for expertise and they have tons of open positions," he said. "It's certainly a great example."

Those graduating might also be in a position to really immerse themselves in global issues by living and working in a poorer country.

"Is it a time where you could go off to one of these developing countries?" he said.

Gates was also quizzed about his thoughts on genetically modified crops. Gates recommended a book (which I will get a link for), but said that improving resistance to things like drought is important.

"I have a bias, but the book I am recommending is less biased than I am," he said.

And despite his love of technology, Gates said getting PCs to the world's poor is actually pretty low on his priority list.

"You don't need personal-computer connectivity to deal with childhood deaths," he said, though he noted that cell phones, which are more prevalent in developing countries actually can play a big role.

Cell phones can also establish identity, which can help with financial systems, Gates said, noting a project in Kenya that uses phones as a means for banking, bringing savings to those who never had a means to safely do so.

"Poor people don't have saving accounts," he said. "The financial system doesn't work for the poor."