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Getting a move on in math
MIT NEWS OFFICE, Getting a move on in math, Dec 23, 2013

MIT senior Kirin Sinha was just 3 years old when she took her first dance class. Unlike other girls who sign up for tap dancing or ballet to channel a gregarious personality, Sinha, by her own account, was painfully shy, and dance was a way for her to come out of her shell.

She soon found that she didn’t mind the spotlight. That first dance class led to many more; in grade school, Sinha started performing competitively, and later professionally, in classical Indian dance. Around the same time, she also discovered another interest: math. In high school, she competed in state and national mathematics competitions — often as the only female in the top ranks.

“I was constantly asked the question, ‘Why doesn’t it ever bother you that you’re the only girl, or that guys don’t think it’s cool if you’re good at math?’” Sinha recalls. “And I never had a good answer.”

It wasn’t until she was at MIT that Sinha realized that her confidence in math came from an unlikely source: dance.

“[Dance] teaches you discipline, attention to detail, and creativity,” she says. “It gives you the confidence to stand up there and not apologize for anything you’re doing. And that’s something I thought was missing with girls in mathematics.”

Compelled by this connection, in 2012 Sinha founded SHINE, a program whose mission is Supporting, Harnessing, Inspiring, Nurturing, and Empowering middle school girls to learn math by building their confidence through dance. This past year, Sinha recruited 37 girls from middle schools in Boston and Cambridge, as well as mentors from MIT, to participate in eight-week sessions of dance routines and math puzzles. Reluctant at first, the girls soon showed tangible improvement, pulling their grades up from C’s to A’s. And, Sinha adds, they liked the challenge.

Now she plans to take the program abroad: Sinha was one of 34 students nationwide — and four at MIT — awarded Marshall Scholarships last month to pursue two years of graduate studies in the United Kingdom. Starting next fall, she will undertake two master’s degrees, in mathematics and in advanced computer science, at Cambridge University, and hopes to explore ways to integrate SHINE into the British educational system.  

Ahead of the curve

Sinha was born in Baltimore and spent most of her childhood in Bethesda, Md. She remembers coming home from school each day, eager to tackle the math problems her mother gave her for fun. By third grade, she was working out equations in algebra — a subject typically taught in eighth or ninth grade. Because of her accelerated learning, Sinha says she was able to appreciate what others often don’t see in mathematics.

“I believe the reason people fall out of math is because it takes a long time to realize how beautiful it is,” Sinha says. “It’s when you get into number theory and abstract algebra and group theory — that’s when things get deconstructed at such a fundamental level that people get really excited, that they’re discovering a truth or structure to the universe. And people often lose interest before that level because it’s not taught like that.”

In high school, Sinha placed in the top 10 in national mathematics competitions, and was the highest scoring female in her state’s American Mathematics Competition and the American Invitational Mathematics Examination. She also applied this drive to other subjects, graduating from high school in three years.

While she was in high school, teachers from various local schools approached Sinha with the same question: Could she come tutor girls in math? Particularly in middle school, the educators noticed, girls’ performance and interest in the subject waned. So Sinha tutored young women and gave motivational talks about pursuing careers in science.

“I don’t think girls have less ability in math — that’s absurd,” Sinha says. “I think the only reason girls do poorly is that in their head, they don’t want to be the one girl who’s doing well — they don’t want to stand out.”

Building perspectives

After graduation, Sinha headed to MIT to pursue majors in theoretical mathematics and in electrical engineering and computer science and a minor in music. She was particularly drawn to the elegant architecture of pure math, a subject that required “moving piece by piece to string together something that works.”

But Sinha also made an effort to seek out different perspectives, particularly in applied math. During her time at MIT, she took on several internships at companies that looked for mathematical solutions to practical problems. At the investment firm Blackstone Group, Sinha was part of a team that developed mathematical models to analyze hedge fund portfolios and perform risk analysis. And at the New York startup ADAPTLY, she helped create models that analyze advertising for ways to increase visibility on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“Having different perspectives is almost like having different tools,” Sinha says. “It makes you a better problem-solver.”

In the summer before her sophomore year, Sinha lived in an Italian monastery for six weeks. She slept under a bell tower, waking to its clanging early each morning. Not knowing the language, she spent most days in silence, washing clothes by hand, without electricity or hot water. The spare lifestyle left plenty of room for reflection.

“Being able to spend meaningful time with yourself is a very difficult thing,” Sinha says. “It very much helped clarify what I wanted to do and why.”

Dancing through the pipeline

Upon returning to MIT, Sinha quickly drew up a proposal that ultimately became SHINE. She obtained funding with help from MIT’s Public Service Center, and started reaching out to area schools for willing participants. Thinking back to her tutoring experiences, Sinha decided to target girls in sixth and seventh grade — a time when girls’ interest and performance in math severely drops off.

“I’m worried about the girls who think they can’t do math, honestly believe that, and don’t care,” Sinha says. “If you say to these girls, ‘Hey, do you want to do math after school,’ they’re going to roll their eyes at you and not say anything. It’s a challenging pool, but I think it’s the key demographic.”

As Sinha found, dance is an enticing hook to get these girls interested and receptive to challenges in math. This past year, she led two sessions of SHINE, with a total of 37 middle school girls. Each day, the girls learned dance routines and worked on math problems; Sinha sometimes found ways to combine the two in exercises of “kinesthetic learning.” For example, she would integrate a lesson on the Cartesian plane into a dance routine, asking girls to rotate on the dance floor by a given number of degrees — an illustration of the coordinate system.

“It may not feel like work or learning, but it’s actually being embedded in your brain much deeper than just doing millions of practice exercises,” Sinha says.

Sinha hopes to pursue an academic path, and one day become a professor. She recently worked with professor of mathematics Scott Sheffield on problems in decision theory, and is currently working with professor of applied mathematics John Bush on the wave behavior of water droplets.

She says that while her mentors have been supportive and encouraging, she has never had a female math professor.

“I think there need to be more women in that role to encourage more women to move that way,” Sinha says. “We’re losing many of them around middle school, and if you consider in college you might lose more, by the time we get to PhDs, we’re talking about a very small pool. By increasing that pipeline, I think we’re doing a huge service.”