Vinay Kanth Rao with his MAT 114 Calculus students at the University of Southern Mississippi (Photo courtesy of Vinay Kanth Rao)
Growing up in India, Vinay Kanth Rao loved math and knew that he wanted to teach math someday.
After earning his master’s degree in mathematics from the National Institute of Technology in Warangal, India, he entered the doctoral program at the University of Colorado in the United States. While Vinay was teaching a math class at Colorado, a student asked him a question that became a turning point for him about the subject.
One of the students just asked me: ‘Why am I learning this?’ Now, that is the question I did not ask myself for probably 25 years… That was when I realized, OK—if you’re learning something, you should be able to use it, OK? Or at least, down the line, it should be applicable.
Vinay also learned that in the U.S. he could study not only math but, importantly, ways to teach math.
In 2016 he transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he studied mathematics education at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education, or CSME. He was able to explore and develop ways of improving mathematics instruction.
Vinay said: “That decision changed my entire life.”
Vinay brought increased use of visuals, computer games, and inquiry-based instruction to his teaching. Inquiry-based means students work together to answer questions with some help from a teacher rather than only listening to a teacher’s explanation.
Sherry Herron, a former director of CSME, was Vinay’s mentor at Southern Mississippi. She talked about Vinay in an article on the university website: “I have never seen a student with such motivation, creativity, intelligence, and work ethic, and who can produce so much and so many diverse products.”
Active learning in India
In 2018, Vinay founded the Active Learning Institute in Warangal to bring the inquiry-based teaching method to students and teachers in India. He raised $15,000 to support it and traveled to Warangal several times before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress.
Vinay said that in India, mathematics education is so competitive that students feel like they are in a “pressure cooker.” Many people in India think that becoming an engineer or a doctor are the only ways to find career success. This makes them feel extra pressure when they study math, and it often makes them dislike the subject.
At the Active Learning Institute, Vinay is trying to change that. First, he teaches smaller groups of students—about 20 in a class—compared to normal classes with 60 to 100 students. Second, he uses inquiry-based methods to help the students learn. Then, he brings workers in areas besides engineering to his classes to show that there are many other math-related careers.
Differences between American and Indian students
Vinay currently teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently talked to VOA about the differences between mathematics education in the U.S. and India. He said Indian students generally have stronger foundations in math. They are better at memorizing and solving problems. But American students are better at showing the connection between math and its applications. And smaller class size in the U.S. means Vinay could give his students more one-on-one help.
Radia Farid recently took two classes with Vinay at Missouri-St. Louis. She said Vinay “used a lot of real-world applications, and those would help you visualize the concepts that we were learning. And examples would include animation and game development.”
Long term, Vinay wants to help more people enjoy learning math. He plans to create more teaching materials that use visuals and show the applications of math like the popular Love of Physics talks. He also hopes to create software to help high school math teachers with preparing teaching materials.
But, perhaps, his biggest goal is to bring the U.S. model of community colleges to India. Community colleges teach students skills for different careers, such as automotive repair or information technology.
Students usually need two years of study or less to complete their training. And that will increase opportunities for people in India who cannot enter university programs.
Words in This Story
transfer -v. to move something or someone from one place or category to another
visuals -n. images used to in designs or displays
mentor -n. a person who gives special instruction and guidance to another, commonly for training in a specific subject or type of work
motivation -n. a strong desire to do something
ethic -n. a value or moral belief that influences behavior
diverse -adj. having a lot of variety or different kinds
foundation -n. a base upon which other things depend or may be built
concept -n. an idea or abstract principle
animation -n. visual effects in which drawings or cartoons appear to be in motion
opportunity -n. the chance or possibility of doing something one wants to do