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MIT students help middle-school girls SHINE in dance and math

Senior Kirin Sinha has founded an after-school program to connect seventh-grade girls with MIT female student-mentors.
MIT student-mentors help SHINE students through a tailored math curriculum.
MIT student-mentors help SHINE students through a tailored math curriculum.
Photo: Kirin Sinha
SHINE students and their mentor warm up for their dance routine.
SHINE students and their mentor warm up for their dance routine.
Photo: Kirin Sinha

When Kirin Sinha ’14 was growing up, she often found herself as the only girl taking advanced math classes and placing in the top 10 in national math competitions. She was regularly asked why being the only girl did not bother her, and she never had a good answer.

During her junior year in the mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science departments at MIT, Sinha had the realization that her background as a dancer was one of the reasons she always has been comfortable standing out in math. Dancing since the age of three, and professionally since the age of 17, Sinha had learned growing up that “the harder you work and the better you get, the more you stand out and the better your life will be.”

Realizing that this willingness to strive for the spotlight could be cultivated to spark a passion for mathematics, Sinha sought to create an after-school program for middle-school girls that would combine training in dance with enrichment in mathematics. After seeking support from the Public Service Center and the Department of Mathematics, Sinha founded SHINE (an acronym for Supporting, Harnessing, Inspiring, Nurturing, Empowering) in November 2012.

An afternoon at SHINEs

During its first term, 14 middle-school girls enrolled in SHINE to work with 10 female MIT student-mentors. A typical session of SHINE starts with the girls tackling a challenging mathematics problem with their mentors nearby to coach them.

After a word problem game gets the group thinking analytically, the girls transition to a warm up and practice individual dance moves. In the second half of the dance lesson, the students work on choreography. Each SHINE session culminates in a final performance where each girl performs a solo for family and friends to emphasize and celebrate each girl’s ability to stand out in her excellence.

To transition to the mathematics portion of the program, mentors call out rapid-fire questions and movement combinations. These might include directions to turn to different angles (such as 45 or 90 degrees) or to spin while reciting multiplication tables.

Sinha says that such kinesthetic learning reinforces a concept by tying it to a concrete physical action.

“I got the idea by combining concepts that had worked well when I had tutored girls in math and taught dance classes in the past,” Sinha says. “Dance was a natural pairing with mathematics for girls since, aside from providing physical activity, it requires dedication, attention to detail, and confidence to succeed. These same tools enable the girls to excel in mathematics.”

After the exercise, the girls catch up with their mentors over a snack while going over homework from the previous week. At the end of each session the group moves on to discussing new curriculum topics.

Prior to beginning the program, the girls take an entrance survey to gauge their math abilities and self-confidence. According to Sinha, 80 percent initially say they do not want to stand out even when they are good at something.

“At the beginning of the program, many of the girls would refuse to do the mathematics problems, but now they’re totally willing,” Sinha says. “When we began the program, only one person would even attempt to solve the challenge problem, but now, they all try and more and more of them are able to complete it. It’s the attitude shift that was really significant. We saw every girl improve in both math and confidence and a 40 percent improvement in their overall math scores from the beginning to end of the program.”

The future of SHINE

The response from the girls have been so enthusiastic that Sinha increased the size of the summer program and opened it to outgoing and incoming seventh graders to accommodate the girls who would like to come back for another session. During the summer term, there were 20 students and eight MIT mentors engaged in the program. Sinha says her ambition is to see SHINE spread all over the country.

“It’s a very reproducible program,” she says. “People can start branches everywhere… it has franchise potential.”

But, she also knows there are many questions left to answer about the feasibility of scaling the SHINE model.

“Does this only work in cities or in the U.S., or can it be a solution globally?” she asks. “We want to test it internationally. We’re hoping to see if it can be successful abroad, a larger solution.”

The one thing Sinha says she wants people to take away from hearing SHINE’s origin story is that there is no such thing as “it’s too late” or “it’s too much” at MIT if someone has the passion to do something. Just over a year ago, SHINE was nothing more than an idea in her mind, and now it is a huge part of her life.

“Even if SHINE died tomorrow, we would have affected the lives of 34 girls in a tangible way,” she says. “That alone would have made it worth the work so far. If you put your entire self behind what you do, and don’t apologize about it, then you will be able to stand out in a positive way and really give something back.”

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