Cracking the Code to Student Success

by Caitlin Gipson

While most careers begin after college graduation, Andrew Svehaug ’08, MBA ’09, began his at age 15. As a high school sophomore, Svehaug won the national chess championship for his age group. The title brought opportunities to tutor younger students, which led to the experience that changed everything: his student won. “When my 5-year-old chess student won the Kindergarten National Chess Championship, that changed my focus,” he said. “I realized that I was even more passionate about helping kids win than about winning myself.” Today Svehaug and his students win big with Code to the Future, the nationally recognized education company he incubated and launched during his time at Azusa Pacific. Svehaug’s story exemplifies how APU students combine passion and entrepreneurship to create organizations that make a difference.

As a college freshman, Svehaug brought his student focus to APU and immediately went to work. That year, he started after-school chess programs in multiple local public schools. By his junior year, word had spread, and the list had expanded to 15 schools, more than he could serve alone. “I had schools clamoring for programs, requesting that I train teachers—it was clear that there was a need here, and that I could do this full time.” A double major in music and business, Svehaug took his business to his professors. “They poured into me and helped me refine my vision,” he said. “Most students learn business principles through internships—my business was my internship.” Svehaug found that working full time in his fledgling business brought a new level of meaning to his coursework. “I was working already, which meant that I was able to immediately test and apply what my professors were modeling.”

As Svehaug graduated and transitioned into the MBA program, his company transitioned its educational focus from chess to computer programming. “Our work with chess was never about training chess champions, it was about training the brain,” he said. “Similarly, coding isn’t about creating an army of computer programmers, it’s about using coding in the classroom as a vehicle to help students succeed in school and in life.”

How they facilitate that success has progressed over time, starting with after-school programs and camps, moving to curriculum planning and development and the creation of the nation’s first immersion-model computer science magnet elementary school. Rios Elementary in El Cajon, California, partners with Code to the Future to incorporate computer programming and game design into the everyday curriculum, simultaneously preparing students for computer-literate careers and using computer science to make traditional academic areas more engaging. The company has been so successful in working computer science into education programs that the White House recognized it. The announcement of former President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative pointed out the Bureau of Labor Statistics projection of 1 million unfilled computer science jobs by 2020 and also highlighted Code to the Future’s efforts as a model for addressing the shortfall.

The magnet school model shows promise, and next year Code to the Future will boast 41 new computer science magnet schools across the country. The company now works with hundreds of schools and more than a hundred school districts nationwide. Svehaug points out, however, that computer science, like chess, simply represents a means to an end. “We use computer science not as an end goal in itself, but as a catalyst to make math, English, and science more fun and engaging and help students thrive in whatever path they take,” he said. “We are hoping to change the narrative around what kids can do. If kids can code in Java in fourth and fifth grade, how much more should we expect of them? And as adult educators, how does that change how we treat students? We want to help educators approach these kids with higher expectations and a new level of awe.”

Michael, a fourth grader at W.D. Hall Elementary in El Cajon, attended a Minecraft day hosted by a Code to the Future magnet school. Throughout the day, students built in virtual and physical Minecraft worlds, playing Minecraft word games and connecting the game to real-life robotics. While educators talked about STEM job preparedness and lauded the Common Core standards met by the various activities, Michael gave it the kind of praise that Svehaug really cares about: “This is a great thing for kids. I’m learning, and it’s fun!”

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer, search engine optimizer, and marketing consultant in Central California.

Originally published in the Winter '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.