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Getting Girls Hooked on Math: A Conversation with Actress/Mathematician Danica McKellar

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Actress Danica McKellar first became famous as the beautiful Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, a hit TV show that aired in the late '80s and early '90s. In the years since, she has starred in over 30 films, TV movies and plays.

But it's her work in mathematics that has most recently caught the attention of educators around the country. McKellar has written two books to get tween-aged girls hooked on math. Math Doesn't Suck aims to help middle school girls overcome their fear of math and understand that it pays to be smart. Her sequel, Kiss My Math, helps girls slay the pre-algebra dragon. A third book, this one on algebra, is in the works.

A summa-cum-laude math major from UCLA, McKellar comes with impressive mathematical credentials. She has even co-authored a theorem on two-dimensional magnetism that now bears her name.

McKellar recently spoke with us about girls and math.

Girls and Math

Public School Insights: Do girls really hate math? And if so, why?

McKellar: Let's face it: Boys and girls in this country, by and large, are not huge fans of mathematics. But the issue seems to be particularly problematic for girls because, on top of the stereotypes about how difficult and “nerdy” it is to study math, girls are also getting the message that they're not supposed to be good at it.

Public School Insights: Where do you think that message is coming from?

McKellar: I think that it is coming from all over. Girls are inundated with images of what women are supposed to be, from billboards, magazines and pop culture in general – that girls are supposed to be sexy and appealing, and maybe even a little dumb, and that this is considered attractive. That's the message that they're getting.

Boys don't get that message. Boys tend to be more encouraged at a young age to talk about things like what they are going to do when they grow up. Girls tend to be complimented on their appearance. I think it starts very early.

Public School Insights: As an actress, you've got a lot of experience with this popular culture.

McKellar: Yes, and Hollywood is largely to blame for these stereotypes.

Public School Insights: Given all the negative influences out there, do you ever feel like you might be swimming upstream with the books that you've done—Math Doesn't Suck and Kiss My Math?

McKellar: Upstream is not a bad place to be swimming. I really believe in the message I'm giving these young girls. And even if there were just a handful of girls who actually got the message that, "You know what? I can do this math and now I feel more confident and capable," that would have made me happy. Judging from the emails I get, it seems I'm reaching a lot more than just a few girls. Really, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

The Critical Middle School Years

Public School Insights: I understand you've decided to target middle school girls in particular. Why that age group?

McKellar: Math Doesn't Suck is for ages 10 to 12. Kiss My Math is pre-algebra, which is still technically the middle school level. Now I'm working on an algebra book, which will be for eighth or ninth graders, or anyone else taking algebra. And I will probably keep advancing the math with future books. But I wanted to start in middle school, where the problems really begin.

I learned through talking to teachers, parents and all sorts of educators, and also through the research that I did at UCLA and when I spoke before Congress, that middle school is the time when kids start falling from math in the biggest numbers: in terms of their understanding; in terms of their interest.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is directly connected to the “nerd” stereotype. See, when kids are really young, they're carefree. They're not self-conscious. They're not worried about their image. But as they get into the middle school years, for the first time they become worried what others will think of them. It’s an issue for both boys and girls, but especially girls.

"Who am I? What kind of person am I going to be when I grow up? Am I popular? Do people like me?” These things become really important at that age. And when math has a reputation of being just for nerds, it becomes less desirable. They’ll think, “Who am I? I’m not sure, but I certainly don’t want to be a ‘math person.’”

On top of it, that's the age when math gets more difficult. It goes from memorizing multiplication and long division to really conceptual topics like fractions and percents. Those take center stage in the math classes, and those are harder to get. And when they have evidence saying, "You know what? Maybe socially it's better for you not to get it," then we're in trouble.

Public School Insights: I've heard you say in the past that there is pressure for middle school girls, that you've heard from these girls themselves, not to appear too smart. Is that what you're targeting here with your books?

McKellar: That's a large part of what I'm targeting.

While writing Math Doesn't Suck, I collected quotes from kids. I had a couple of questions that I asked all the kids: "What do you think of math? What did you used to think of math? What do you think of smart girls? What do you think of dumb girls?"

To the question "What do you think of dumb girls?" I got, almost universally, one answer back: "There's no such thing as dumb girls. They're just pretending to be dumb." These were 12-, 13-year-old girls. I was floored.

I think it's worse now than it was when I was that age. If it isn't, maybe my eyes are just open to it now. It became that much more obvious to me how important it is—how crucial it is—to give girls permission to be smart. To let them know that it's not going to take anything away from them; in fact, that it's going to add to their lives. It's going to make them more powerful. They'll have more choices later on, whether it's in getting a job that pays more because it requires math and science, or just in having the confidence that comes from feeling smart and knowing they can overcome any challenge, whether in a career or elsewhere.

If they want to be fabulous and sexy and all that, great. There's no problem with that. But you don't have to give anything up for it. You don't have to give up your brain. In fact, your brain's going to make everything better, no matter who you want to be. There's no down side to staying sharp, and math is one of the best brain-sharpening tools there is.

I want to give girls a positive role model when it comes to being smart, and show them that they can do both.

The Practical, Beautiful Science

Public School Insights: As you probably know, teachers are always getting the question, "When are we ever going to use this stuff?"

McKellar: That's another issue I’ve tackled in all my books. Because it's true. I remember asking that question in the fourth or fifth grade. The teacher said, "Well, um, if you want to become a math teacher."

I remember thinking, "What kind of a crazy cycle is this? You learn math to become a math teacher to teach other people to learn math to become math teachers?" That whole system seemed totally weird.

Luckily, I was an over-achiever in math, so it didn't bother me much that I didn't see the practicality. But I didn't see the practicality. I know there are many teachers out there who show their students real-life applications in math, but I didn’t experience that – even from my math teachers who I considered to be great. But for most students who may not have an inherent love of math – or of over-achieving – I think understanding math’s applications in life is really important for engaging students in the subject.

So in my books, almost every single section has a real-life application -- some fun thing that has something to do with teen girls' lives. For example, dividing decimals and looking at how many megs of RAM you have left on the disk that you're putting your videos of your cute little puppy on. Just putting girls in situations that they might actually experience in their lives. You can do that with fractions, decimals, proportions and everything, really.

Public School Insights: So they begin to draw connections between the abstract and the concrete.

McKellar: Absolutely.

Public School Insights: You're an advanced theoretical mathematician yourself. I understand you've co-authored a proof that was published in an international peer-reviewed journal. So it sounds to me like you've actually moved beyond the stage in mathematics where everything is eminently practical.

McKellar: In terms of being practical for every-day life, you’re completely right. Fortunately, I think mathematics is beautiful. I try to instill that in my readers, as well. But that's not my priority, or my most important message.

To me, mathematics is actually an art form. The higher you go, the more beautiful it gets. You get to deal with things like infinity and abstract concepts that make your brain expand. Advanced math actually makes your brain feel like it's getting bigger, and I just love that: drawing connections and seeing patterns. And the patterns really are beautiful to look at.

But math doesn't really get like that until you get much more advanced. That's not what I'm trying to do for these girls. I don't want to tell them, "You all have to become mathematicians someday, or otherwise you're not cool.” That's not the message at all.

The message is: “Look. You may discover that you have a love of mathematics later on -- or now, and you want to study it later on. Wonderful. If not, then at least know that you can do the math required of you. You can absolutely handle it. In fact, you can own it, and you can overcome challenges you never thought you could. That's going to make you a stronger human being and more capable of dealing with all of life's problems.”

Public School Insights: Can you give us the name of your journal article or your proof?

McKellar: Sure: "Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2."

Public School Insights: I imagine that is more the beautiful side rather than the practical side.

McKellar: Actually, not as much as you'd think. That research was in statistical mechanics, which is a practical side of mathematics. The work that we did, as I understand it, is being used for certain computer algorithms.

But to be honest, the paper that I co-authored is not my favorite part of math. My favorite part is the abstract stuff. It's real analysis, complex analysis. It's the courses you take where you learn to prove the theorems you've been using in calculus—so you really get underneath the mathematics and see how it all began. It's like going back in time and building the whole number system from scratch. You study operations and sets and things that generalize the topics we use every day. You know topology? Fascinating. So abstract. That stuff is so great.

Math Role Models

Public School Insights: Was there an adult who got you excited about math in the first place and put you on this track?

McKellar: There are a few wonderful teachers who really helped me see how fun math could be. In the seventh grade I had a teacher named Ms. Jacobson, whom I actually credit in Math Doesn't Suck for really bringing me to a turning point. Because I was very stressed out in middle school. I was terrified of math, actually. So I can relate to all of the kids who are scared of math at that age, because math was not always easy for me at all.

Ms. Jacobson really helped me to relax. I think in just relaxing and kind of loosening up a little bit, I saw, "Oh wait, this isn't some big scary subject out there that's going to devour me. Maybe I can actually handle this." That was a truly turning point for me.

Later on, in the eleventh grade, I had another standout teacher, Mr. Metzger, who showed me the beauty in mathematics. That's what propelled me to become a math major. But Ms. Jacobson is the one who taught me some of the skills that I'm teaching these girls now.

Public School Insights: Your books have a style that makes them very accessible to middle school girls. Do you think teachers can learn something from this more accessible style that you've begun to practice?

McKellar: Of course there are a ton of teachers out there who already have a very accessible, fun teaching style. But there are also other teachers out there who are either new or for whom math isn't, to be honest, their favorite subject. I get tons of emails from new math teachers saying, "Thank you so much, you're making my lesson plans so much easier to write, my students are really responding to your techniques.” It’s great to feel like a part of the teaching community in a way.

Moving Up to Algebra

Public School Insights: You mentioned that Kiss My Math dealt with pre-algebra, and that now you're actually moving up to algebra with your new book. So it is for eighth or ninth graders?

McKellar: Exactly. It's for Algebra I, though different schools and different kids take it at different ages.

Public School Insights: As I’m sure you know, Algebra I really is a critical subject.

McKellar: Absolutely. And at least in California, there was a recent push to make Algebra I mandatory for all eighth-graders—despite the fact that most of them aren't algebra-ready.

When I wrote Kiss My Math and Math Doesn't Suck, I really focused on algebra-readiness to make sure that kids would be completely comfortable once they got to algebra. Because algebra…Even the name is scary. It's intimidating. It's not math anymore, it's “algebra.”

Algebra starts off with pre-algebra, for the first couple of months. Kiss My Math prepares them for that, covering all that preliminary stuff. My next book will pick up from where that one leaves off.

Public School Insights: Is it any harder to make algebra accessible?

McKellar: As the math gets more difficult it becomes a little more complicated, but this book feels like my other books. They’re so fun to write. As I do, I imagine all the cobwebs in the students’ brains being swept away, "Ah, is that how you do it! That's a great way to think about it” – that sort of thing. I sit there and force myself to come up with really creative, interesting ways of explaining things so that it sticks in their heads, and so it doesn't feel scary.

Public School Insights: When can we look forward to seeing the book?

McKellar: August 2010. My publisher likes to release my books for back-to-school, so it's always August. Why not August 2009? Well, this algebra book will be longer than its two predecessors. It also takes more thought, and like you said, it's more crucial, so I decided not to try to squeeze it into one year, but to take two years and really get it right.

Final Thoughts: Educators’ Impact

Public School Insights: Are there any questions I really should have asked you but didn't?

McKellar: I just want to say thank you to all of the teachers, educators, librarians, parents and students who share their experiences about the books—it's so invaluable to me. Whether via email, or reviews on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.com, I treasure the feedback – especially from the educators.

I mean, I'm not on the front lines. While I have plenty of communication with teachers and students, it's not the same as actually being there in the classroom. I love hearing what works with my books and how it works, and if something doesn't work I want to hear about that too.

I'm just so appreciative. I have all the respect in the world for teachers and what they do every day. It's amazing. I remember, when I was in school, the kind of impact that teachers had on me. I feel really lucky to be able to interact with as many teachers as I do.

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