Kenta Koga '14 Combines Magic and Engineering For New School

Departments: Computer Science

Kenta Koga ‘14, has been practicing magic since he was 8 years old. Magic gigs helped pay for his tuition at Yale, and he has toured the world with his illusions. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science, he worked as a product designer for a number of companies in Silicon Valley. Today, he’s the CEO of Gakko, a company he founded while still a student that runs schools and summer camps focusing on specific topics. “Gakko is my attempt to completely reimagine what a school can be,” he said.

The first Gakko opened in Japan, where Koga was born and raised. Most recently, he opened a school in New York. He still practices magic, and incorporates it into his job as an educator. We spoke with Koga to talk about how engineering, education and magic intersect.

Engineering and magic, it turns out, are not so different?

How you learn magic is really fascinating, and it’s very similar to engineering. You need a lot of patience. There’s not that much literature from which you can learn – you really need to watch the YouTube videos of a magician you like over and over and over again until you get it. You think and try out ideas and fail. It’s very similar to debugging a piece of software you’ve written.

One of the things I’m thankful for in my engineering education is that I’ve learned how to design magic tricks and build illusions myself. In electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, once you know how to actually build stuff, the possibilities you have as a magician increase a lot.

What kind of things does a magician build?

One example, without going into too much detail, is the building of illusion boxes. You put someone in, and three seconds later, a lion comes out. As much as that’s magic, it’s also engineering. How do you use the constraints you have? With the materials, the technology and kind of the science we know, how do you create this wonderful surprise as a final product? That’s my favorite thing about combining magic and technology.

How did Gakko start?

The first time I heard the words “summer camp” was when I got to Yale and heard my friends talking about it. It was a culture that didn’t exist in Japan, and I thought that was such an amazing thing we were missing out on. In 2010, I started fundraising with the goal of bringing that culture to Japan. In 2012, we had the very first summer camp in Japan.  

You were still a student at that point. Did that help in any way?

There are so many diverse and interesting students at Yale, I thought “Why don’t I ask them to be a teacher?” I asked each person this question: If you could become a high school teacher for one day in your life, what would you teach? Each person had an answer to that question.

It was a blast and a huge success and the people who came to teach loved it. It just kept going the next year we held again and the year after that.

Tell us about Gakko’s newest incarnation, a school rather than a summer camp, which opened in New York last month.

We started thinking “What if we could open a school where we can implement these ideas throughout the year?” We started conceiving this idea of opening a school in New York for after work or during the day. We invited seasoned professionals to take a few years off their lives to create an educational program of their dreams. We’re starting with a musician and a computer programmer.

We said to them ‘You’ve performed at Carnegie Hall, and won an Grammy award, but looking back, how would you design and put together an educational program to study and learn? How would it be different from the way Julliard would teach? To the computer programmer, we asked “What would be the dream program that you wish you experienced when you were learning to code?”

It’s a 10-week program that gives access to the space and has all the tools that you need. Part of the inspiration for it comes from the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID), where in addition to the programming that’s happening every day, it’s kind of a workspace where you can go and make whatever you want to make with the tools that are there.

Go here to learn more about Gakko. (Photo by Florian Koenigsberger)