The MA in Public Policy with Certificate in Research Methods (MACRM) program at Harris has given Shah an opportunity to restart and evolve his original goal of pursuing a PhD.
Rohen Shah

PhD student at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and recent graduate of the MA in Public Policy with Certificate in Research Methods (MACRM) program at Harris, Rohen Shah skillfully translates between languages and mediums. Whether he is translating math to students through educational rap videos on YouTube or translating data to policymakers, Shah works to present new concepts to diverse audiences as clearly as possible.

When Shah was a child, his family moved to India, a linguistically diverse country where he had the opportunity to learn multiple languages. When he returned to the United States, he found that math had become intuitive because he approached it in the same way he approached learning a new language.

He believes that the universality of math as a language can help policymakers. “I hope to shape future generations of policymakers and ensure they use robust methods in everything they do without partisanship. I want to help people on both sides of the aisle find common ground and introduce an element of working together in objectivity—even on heated political issues.”

The MA in Public Policy with Certificate in Research Methods (MACRM) program at Harris has given Shah an opportunity to restart and evolve his original goal of pursuing a PhD. Shah graduated with a Bachelor’s in Economics and Math from the University of Michigan in 2010, and by age 20 was accepted into a PhD program in Math Education at the school. Simultaneously, Shah took a management role a tutoring company called Far From Standard, where he began working as a math tutor in 2006.

Unfortunately, his work and studies were derailed when he woke up one morning with severe back pain related to a herniated disc. After surgery, Shah faced a painful recovery process. He dropped out of his PhD program (fortunately with enough credits to complete a master’s degree) and quit his job to work through a long process of physical therapy.

His frequent doctors’ visits, combined with his years of tutoring experience, inspired him to create DiagKNOWstics, a Web-MD style encyclopedia of terms for common misconceptions students have surrounding math (e.g. “Memorizitis” and “Hyperconfidencia’”), which evolved into a customizable online math tutoring program.

When he became a middle and high school math teacher in Detroit, however, he noticed, “The software that I was making wouldn’t have really worked for my students because it assumes there’s buy-in. I realized the pill’s not going to work if the patient spits it out. I wondered how teachers could get students motivated to learn math… My students would often listen to music on their headphones during class, so I decided, you know what? Let’s make this fun.”

Shah recorded math rap songs with his students, and eventually covered other subjects such as the electoral college and feminism. His videos went viral on YouTube and Facebook. He started a nonprofit called SKULE.org to fund more videos and spent the next year travelling to schools around the country giving performances under the pseudonym “MC SKULE,” an acronym that stands for “Spread Knowledge Using Lyrics & Entertainment.” His innovative, down-to-earth approach to teaching math also gave him the opportunity to guest lecture on tutoring theory at several universities, including Harvard. In 2018, he was the National Tutoring Association’s Tutor of the Year, due in large part to his YouTube videos.

Now, Shah plans to broaden his impact on education by helping to shape education policy. “I would like to teach microeconomics and statistics because they are so universal… the same tools a business uses to maximize profits, a school could also use to maximize student test scores, or a hospital to minimize number of deaths.”

His PhD work will focus on developing scalable, low-cost interventions to improve math outcomes for students. For the past year-and-a-half, he has worked as a research assistant for the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab, analyzing data for low-cost interventions to improve parenting outcomes for young children. Now a Doctoral Research Fellow at the BIP Lab, Shah is coauthoring a book chapter on scaling early childhood interventions with his advisors Dr. Ariel Kalil and Dr. Susan Mayer, co-directors of the BIP Lab. This fall, he served as the Math Camp instructor at Harris for the MA in International Development and Policy program and Evening Master's Program, as well as the Head TA for the Master of Public Policy (MPP) Calculus Math Camp.

His favorite thing about Harris is its interdisciplinarity: “When you put political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and economists in the same room, all of a sudden it’s about searching for truth instead of simply publishing and adhering to the norms of a specific field. If anything is going to help us solve real world problems, it’s everybody coming together.”