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Girlie Math

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By Bekah Wright

Published Aug 8, 2007 4:54 PM


art

Danica McKellar '98 knows how to be girlie. Indeed, one need merely watch the actress taking on one of her roles to know she's got "strong, intelligent, female" down pat. When it comes to spreading girlie empowerment, though, McKellar is taking an unlikely approach — through math. On August 2, her book for middle school girls, "Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail" hit bookstores. Math will never be the same.

In 2000, life imitated art for McKellar, who played congressional assistant Elsie Snuffin on The West Wing, when she was asked to speak in front of Congress about the importance of women in mathematics. Her goal was to obtain scholarship funds to help young women pursue math and science in college. In doing research for her moment at the podium, McKellar came to the conclusion that even if funding were put into place, math would be reaching women too late.

"By then young women have already decided whether or not math is for them," she says. "The problems really start in middle school. Every girl gets the message — math is not for you, it's for someone else."

A self-proclaimed overachiever, even McKellar came up against roadblocks to math during her "tween" years. In a particularly pivotal moment, a new teacher's math quiz rendered her unable to calculate.

An interview with the Advocate

Read an interview with Danica by Wired magazine.

"I was sitting there trembling, frozen, wanting to disappear and feeling so humiliated." The teacher offered to let her stay after class and take her time with the test. Moved by this act of compassion, McKellar was able to complete the quiz.

"To this day, I remember that as a turning point where I started not to think of math as this big scary thing."

McKellar went on to excel in her math classes. Still, when she reached UCLA, choosing math as a major was the furthest thing from her mind.

"I thought math was challenging enough in high school and couldn't even imagine what college level math would be like," she says. "I didn't think it was for me. When I think of that now I think, well, who else would it have been for!"

Professors encouraged McKellar to pursue math. Not only did she settle on the discipline as her major, but when Professor Lincoln Chayes recommended she try her hand at solving a proof with classmate Brady Winn '98, McKellar dove right in. The result of that research, The Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem, was published in Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and General in 1998.

After graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, McKellar returned to acting. Math continues to be a constant in her life through various philanthropic pursuits as well as the recent release of her book. Designed to resemble a fashion magazine, McKellar's book is, "For all the girls who think math isn't for them and would rather be reading a teen magazine than doing their math homework."

The concept is a familiar one for the actress, who at age 12 brought middle-school angst to the small screen through her role of Winnie in the Emmy Award-winning hit TV show The Wonder Years. During high school, McKellar wrote a monthly advice column for Teen Beat magazine called "Dear Danica" and that format is reflected through her book, which entertains as well as educates with everything from math personality quizzes to math horoscopes.

McKellar's goal — "More than anything, I want girls to come away from the book with more math knowledge, more confidence in their math abilities and thinking, ‘Yes, math is for me.'"

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