Two Vancouver engineers wising up with Einstein
After-school math program designed to teach children the fundamentals and raise American technical education standards
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Sudhakar Kudva and Sang Park — both engineers, fathers, and immigrants — met in 2007, when their mutual passion for strong math education attracted them to a meeting to discuss new statewide math standards in public schools.
That chance meeting would lead, four years later, to their launch of an after-school education program they call EinsteinWise. The Vancouver-based “brain training center” melds the ancient game of chess and the modern technology of the computer tablet into a K-6 program that encompasses math, Mandarin Chinese, Lego robotics, and even yoga. Kudva , 56, and Park, 52, are in late stages of testing their math software and hope over time to expand to reading and other basic study areas. Longer term, their dream is that their work will be incorporated into public school curriculums.
They’ve struggled to promote their business’s first location, tucked in a shopping mall just off 192nd Avenue, resorting to placing fliers on doors in nearby neighborhoods and ads in family magazines. But the two men, highly accomplished in their professional fields, say they want to help raise American technical education standards to match those of rising Asian nations. Drawing on their business backgrounds, they see improved education in math and the sciences as critical to America’s economic competitiveness.
“The way I see education, there needs to be a lot of basics built up early — vocabulary, writing, grammar, multiplication, math skills,” Kudva said during an interview with both men at the spacious EinsteinWise school, as a group of children played chess nearby.
Kudva is firm in his belief that parents and teachers should insist that students learn the fundamentals of math and other foundational subjects, rather that letting them sidestep basics at an early age to pursue their own perceived talents.
“In America, talent is way overrated,” Kudva added, with Park nodding in agreement. “The more you do something, the more you’re comfortable with it.”
Their program is built on a computer tablet platform, and includes quiz questions for students based on ability rather than age. A correct answer earns visual kudos and a move to the next level; an incorrect answer moves the students to less challenging questions. If the student appears not to understand the question, the program shifts to a more basic concept or flags a tutor for personal assistance.
Something to say
Their journey began when Kudva, a native of India, and Park, from South Korea, showed up for that 2007 meeting about new math education standards. Terry Bergeson, then state Superintendent of Public Instruction, had invited public comments. Both arrived with something to say.
“I started raising questions that the standards were too low,” Park says. Kudva voiced similar concerns. Introductions followed, and John Deeder, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, said he wanted to talk further with the men about their ideas. The seed that would become EinsteinWise was planted.
As their partnership developed, their technical backgrounds seemed a suitable match: Sang is a software engineer, with advance degrees in computer science, architecture, and business, and a wide-ranging professional career working on a government defense missiles project and for a gaming company. Kudva, specializing in computer hardware, was educated in India and holds a doctorate in materials science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He had held high-level jobs with Intel in Texas, California, and Oregon over 25 years.
Together, they delved more deeply into research on math education, finding no models that matched their own vision, and began developing their own computer-based tutorial concepts.
Chess, long recognized as a vehicle for teaching strategic thinking, al so weighed heavily in their discussions. Kudvar’s children had competed in chess clubs in California and Oregon, and he helped form Oregon Scholastic Chess Federation to raise the competitive level in the state when he lived in Beaverton, Ore.
Math education remains their passion, and they hope in time to develop data that shows the effectiveness of their approach.
“Math in my mind should be treated like the queen bee nectar,” says Kudva, who took early retirement from Intel and is now working full-time on building the EinsteinWise concept. “I don’t know why it hasn’t been democratized. It should be available to everybody.”
Help from SCORE
As the idea of launching a business emerged, the men turned to SCORE, a business assistance program staffed by retired executives. They chose a for-profit rather than non-for-profit model so they could continue their research and program development without having to report to a board. Devising a business plan for what they initially called the Amerinko Academy, they opened the doors in June with an initial goal of serving about 30 students a day. Kudva is the academy director and Park also works full-time — allowing his private software business to go dormant.
SCORE mentor Paul Freeman continues to try to help the men with business development, recently connecting them to another SCORE volunteer with marketing expertise.
“I think they have a very unique service and that’s part of the issue,” Freeman said. The men also have maintained ties with Evergreen Superintendent Deeder and lobbied in support of state legislation to make tutors more available in classrooms.
Most of the center’s offerings are from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Costs, set to be comparable to local day care offerings, with monthly fees ranging from $175 for students who attend two days a week to $385 for daily after-school programs. The program also offers weekend SAT and PSAT preparation classes. They’ve attracted some 15 students so far through their low-budget advertising efforts and word of mouth.
Two types of parents
Parents are of two categories, Kudva says. “One type needs a lot of convincing. They say, ‘We have good schools. Our kids get good grades. Why do we need this?’
“The others say, ‘Where have you been?’”
Saman Syed of Camas said she wanted more stringent math education for her children than they were getting in Camas schools or in another after-school tutoring program. Her daughters, Daanya, 9, and Zayneb, 7, attended a chess camp and from there moved into after-school tutoring in math and writing.
“The program is so impressive, they should take it to the school district,” she said.
Tana Burnett, also of Camas, sends her second-grade son, Kyle, to EinsteinWise twice a week. She worried that Kyle would feel like he’s spending three more hours at school. Instead, she says, he’s having great fun learning math, robotics, reading, and even Mandarin Chinese.
“Its incredibly inexpensive,” she says. “Both of these guys could be making tons of money — they’re both geniuses.”
Kudva recognizes that for all their advances in developing the program, they haven’t been effective at marketing. Ever the analyst, he’s eager to generate data that would show skeptics unassailable evidence of success.
“We need to take one step at a time,” he said.