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MIT Student's After-School Program Uses Dance to Improve Girls' Math Skills

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Figuring out the optimal mix of fun activities and academic tutoring in after-school programs is always a challenge, but a Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduate has created a program that combines formal dance classes and math training in a way that appears to be increasing middle school girls' skills and confidence.

Kirin Sinha, an MIT senior majoring in theoretical math and electrical engineering and computer science and minoring in music, launched SHINE, a free dance and math program aimed at 6th and 7th grade girls struggling in their math classes, in 2012. The Boston Globe recently profiled the program.

Girls enroll in eight-week sessions led by MIT students with dance backgrounds to learn hip-hop, jazz, and other choreography and work on math exercises. The groups of about 15 students meet once a week for two hours at a time.

The dance portion of the program serves as a hook to draw girls who might not otherwise choose to attend a math program, but its utility doesn't stop there. Sinha, who's studied Indian classical dance since she was 3 years old, believes that learning dance builds confidence and grit, qualities that help girls persist with and succeed in math.

"Dance taught me the value of hard work and perseverance," Sinha told me. "And when you're performing, you have to be confident in what you're doing, even if you make a mistake or something goes wrong around you. The show always goes on, and you just keep going. That's an important lesson for girls because it's so easy to be deterred by saying, 'No one in this class looks like me,' or 'I made a mistake, maybe this isn't the field for me.' "

SHINE's teachers also use dance to explain math concepts ranging from fractions and the Cartesian plane to variables in algebraic expressions. In one exercise, they have the girls split into groups and create choreographies to different songs. The girls write out their choreographies as formulas in which, say, x represents a turn and y represents a hip pop.

"They start to understand things like if you do 3x + 2x, you're doing the same move 5 times in a row,' " Sinha said. "And 3x +2y is not the same thing as 3 (x+2y). When you dance them, you actually see the different formulas. That leads to the girls understanding that this is representing something."

Girls who have completed SHINE sessions have improved their grades and increased their participation in their math classes, Sinha said. She would like to expand the program nationally after she graduates; some New York public schools will be offering it next year, according to the Boston Globe.

Dance and math are not such an odd pairing, Sinha told me. "Dance is about expressing all of this passion but with utter precision. And I see that same exact thing in math. You're thinking creatively or viewing different perspectives, but you're not being sloppy."

Indeed, dance has been paired with a variety of other academic disciplines, an approach examined in this Education Week story from a few years ago, including to help teach elementary students about photosynthesis.

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