The Wonder of Math: A Conversation with Danica McKellar

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


When you were a kid, did you have an easy time with math? Were you the type of student who intuitively took to it or were you in the other category, struggling to get the concepts and struggling even more to apply them in real life? Many young adults tend to experience difficulty mastering the subject, as do teachers with making it approachable.

Adding insult to injury, there are a slew of other distractions, like puberty, which cause all types of diverse and unsettling issues. Independent of the fact that students can’t wrap their minds around what X stands for, they’re also dealing with their developing biology, emotional sidetracks, and social pressures at the same time. So, as far as they are concerned, most things in life at that point are unsolved variables.

Danica McKellar understands. She’s a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA with a degree in mathematics and the best-selling author of “Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math” and “Hot X: Algebra Exposed!” Her recent book, “Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape,” aims to show girls that geometry can be easy and practical and, most importantly, can be used as a tool to enhance every aspect of life by teaching young ladies how to think and act rationally.

McKellar has been honored in Britain’s esteemed Journal of Physics and The New York Times, but you may know her for her acting accomplishments. While she rose to fame as supercute Winnie Cooper on “The Wonder Years” from 1988 to 1993, she has since appeared on “The West Wing,” “How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory,” “Young Justice,” and many other notable TV shows.

Acting has always been one of Danica’s passions, but math became one of her biggest loves. “I’ve been acting all my life, and when ‘The Wonder Years’ ended, I was just about to start UCLA,” she said in a recent interview. “My plan was to branch out from acting and expand in the business and learn about writing and directing. I figured I’d go to UCLA film school, but you couldn’t apply to film school until you were a junior.”

So she signed up for math, and it ended up taking center stage. “I had an opportunity to redefine myself and to find a new identity outside of the character of Winnie Cooper,” she said. “As a teenager, when a show you’ve been on your entire life ends, it’s hard on your self-esteem. You begin to wonder about what your value is outside of that show. So, for me, starting math was a way to feel smart and useful, and important,” McKellar observed.

Teenagers typically know a thing or two about redefining themselves. When their bodies, interests, and emotions are rapidly changing, self-realization becomes one of the biggest challenges of growing up. Girls, who are known to mature earlier than boys, can find themselves at the center of scrutinizing image debates. Their evolving curves often distract admirers away from their intelligence, and the constant emotional toll caused by their bubbling hormones doesn’t exactly help matters.

Remembering what those years were like is one of the major reasons McKellar decided to take it upon herself to write these books. “You don’t have to be on a television show to struggle with identity,” she stated, proceeding to explain that geometry, and math in general, is first and foremost a tool that helps make the brain — and self-confidence — stronger.

Math trains the problem-solving center of the brain; therefore, the benefits extend far beyond mathematics. McKellar equates it to mental exercise, citing that, much like the way people exercise to stay physically fit, they should also exercise their brains through math to keep sharp. “If we have practice in attacking a problem — having that confidence, knowing that we can overcome it — that stays with us,” she insisted.

Her first book, “Math Doesn’t Suck,” is for kids between 9 and 11 years old. The inspiration behind it came from a journal she used to keep right around that age. Remembering that again during the time she first started to think about her identity — what she liked, and if people liked her — she used the examples and context of her own experiences to connect with the girls she writes for.

Here’s one example, where McKellar explains probability by talking about a school-dance nightmare, from “Girls Get Curves”: “Let’s say there are N people at the dance, and everyone has to dance with everyone else — yes, girls too, because otherwise someone might complain about sexual-orientation discrimination, right? Let’s show this on a vertex. And first, let’s just think about how many dances you’ll have.”

Being aware of how self-conscious young women can be, McKellar decided to veil positive messaging in relatable topics to illustrate her concepts. “That’s why I explain math problems in the context of what teen and preteen girls are already thinking about — boys and fashion and popularity and so on,” she said. “And, believe it or not, there is a way to use those things to teach math, and that’s the fun challenge of writing these books, to figure out how.”

McKellar’s books have been very successful, and parents often inquire if she will pen math books specifically for boys. Danica writes for a female audience because she is female and can to relate young girls. However, as a mother to a young son, she is now watching him formulate his first thoughts about the world. In some ways, that’s not dissimilar to doing research for the future.

“I’ve been writing books I wish that I had in junior high and high school, and I do remember that time in my life like it was yesterday! One of the perks of having a boy is that maybe I’ll understand from the ground up how boys think, what makes them tick, and perhaps I’ll be able to create some great tools for them too,” McKellar said. “My books are a lot like teen magazines. They’re pleasure reading in some ways — they’re very conversational, they’re very chatty — so I don’t know what the tools would be for boys. Maybe it will be a game. I’ll try to keep my mind open about that.”

Danica McKellar is doing something right. The response her books have received from readers, parents, fellow educators, and scholars has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s obvious that she can make the concepts relatable, the messages clear and math much, much easier. At a point when life can seem like a bunch of variables, when it comes to math, at least students can now solve for X.


Danica McKellar can be reached for comments and inquires via @danicamckellar on Twitter and at www.danicamckellar.com.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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