Over the years, Kirin Sinha has heard the same question from her mostly male professors and classmates: “Why didn’t you get deterred along the way?”
Sinha, a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is majoring in theoretical math and computer science and electrical engineering -- fields that have remained heavily dominated by men, even as women have made significant inroads in other areas of science.
When she really started to think about what made her persist in classrooms led and filled with guys, however, she realized it was an activity in which the gender ratio is typically reversed: dance.
Sinha began taking ballet, tap, and jazz when she was 3 years old because, she says, she was kind of a klutzy kid. Eventually, she added classical Indian dance to her repertoire, and she now dances professionally. She has been on math teams and loves the creativity that math requires, but she thinks it was dance that gave her the self-confidence, discipline, and gumption that’s helped her succeed in very different arenas.
“You’re taught to work really hard and work through the sheer sweat and grit,” Sinha said. “That stuck with me through math.”
She began to wonder whether dance provided a way to build certain skills that were totally neglected in a traditional math class. She noticed that when she tutored students, there was a clear gender difference: Boys say they don’t understand fractions. Girls say they can’t.
A year and a half ago, Sinha launched SHINE, an unusual after school program for middle school girls that combines the two disciplines. Through hours of tutoring on hip-hop moves and fractions, the program seeks to help girls with math skills and their mindset. Sinha hopes that even just small changes to girls’ self confidence or comfort with math could yield big gains.
On a recent afternoon, the 15 girls in the session spent time learning a complicated hip-hop routine while their instructors walked them through the hops and twirls and shoulder-shimmying steps. They broke it down and practiced the sequence, first slowly and then sped-up. The girls were chatty and inquisitive, asking questions about how their hands should be placed during one move or how to get back into place quickly after the end of one sequence. Then, they went up to a sunlit room at the top of an MIT dormitory and began drawing math problems on the wall with markers and working through packets of word problems.
“Girls that self-elect to be in after-school math programs are not the ones falling out of the system,” Sinha said. She hopes that the program, which is set to expand to some New York City public schools next year, could help capture a wider gamut of girls.
She also has designed a curriculum that turns math into a game, adding movement and three-dimensional reasoning to an activity that’s usually worked out silently, on a flat piece of paper. For example, the girls play a version of Twister in which the dots are replaced with numbers that are fractions or decimals, and they have to know that 1/2 = 0.5 = 2/4 in order to get through each turn. They think about algebra by assigning dance moves to different parts of an equation. If x = a jump, the girls can work out that 3x + 2 = 5 jumps, while 3 (x+2) = 9 jumps. When they do a unit on geometry, they play a game of Simon Says in which Sinha uses a mathematical formula to describe a shape, and the girls, without talking, form, for example, a circle.
Abigail Yu, a sixth-grader from Chenery Middle School in Belmont, said she loves math. It is her favorite subject at school and her best subject. What she likes best are the shortcuts that she has begun to learn about -- such as how, when multiplying fractions, it is possible to cancel out parts of the numerator and dominator. She finds it elegant and fun.
On Wednesday afternoon, she explained to two other girls and her mentor how she had solved a probability question, which, she noted, “is not one of my strong points.”
Yu says it’s nice to work on the problems with a bunch of girls -- mostly because the boys in her class can be rowdy and make a lot of noise.
In earlier sessions, Sinha has done tests at the beginning and end of the program to measure the gains the girls have made. She has found marked improvement and this spring, with the curriculum refined, she’s hoping for even bigger gains. This summer, she plans to expand the program more, nationally, and in the fall -- when she heads to the University of Cambridge on a Marshall scholarship -- she hopes to extend the program overseas.
The girls, on the other hand, are probably less worried about the math and more excited and anxious about the performance in a few weeks, when they will finally get to show off their skills to their parents. Some of them practice at home in front of a mirror -- just another kind of homework.
On Wednesday afternoon, they were completely at ease with each other, having practiced dance moves together for the past few weeks. They broke into small groups and coached each other on the math problems, while munching on pretzels and carrots. The absence of boys was basically unremarkable, and the stereotype that girls don’t like math was completely absent from the room.
Yu was motivated to join the program because she looks up to her older sister, who has been doing a lot of dancing through a school club. And also skipped a grade of math.
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.