Danica McKellar is on a mission to make mathematics appealing to young girls. Words Matt Pomroy.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably recognise the face. Between1988 and 1993, Danica McKellar was the girl next door in television’s The Wonder Years. But unlike some other child stars, she didn’t drift off into the world of bad films and worse habits.
Instead she went to UCLA University and discovered herself. And it turned out that she’s a maths whizz so brilliant that she graduated with highest honours and co-authoured a scientific paper entitled Percolation And Gibbs States Multiplicity For Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller Models On Z2. Which in mathematics circles is a very big deal indeed.
She’s now written a book, and although the title is just as long, it’s far less complicated. In fact, Math Doesn’t Suck: How To Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind Or Breaking A Nail is specifically designed to take the complication out of arithmetic and make it enjoyable for girls aged nine-12 years old.
For Danica, it’s something she’s truly passionate about, because girls of that age are increasingly struggling at school. ‘It’s social conditioning,’ she explains when Time Out asks her about the downward trend in female education.
‘Maths gets a lot of bad PR, and it’s looked at as a subject that’s for nerdy people and as something that’s not for girls.’ The frustration is clear in her voice, as she goes on to point out how young girls are being turned off one of life’s key topics. ‘A couple of years ago there was a Barbie doll, and when you pulled the string at the back it said: “Math is hard…” and we’ve had the president of Harvard University talking about how he believes that women were biologically inferior to men when it comes to maths and science. We are being given the message that it’s not for girls – they’re not good at it and they don’t like it, why would they, it’s not glamorous.’
Putting that glamour back into maths is not easy, but the book is written to make the topic fun and understandable. Danica is hoping to teach young girls mathematical techniques though topics they already understand. For example, by getting readers to compare the boy they currently have a crush on to the one they used to like, and listing what they have in common, is something girls need no encouragement to do. But then change boys to numbers, and the same techniques apply to algebra and factoring. ‘I’ve worked hard to try and find interesting, creative and memorable ways to remember certain techniques that are used for solving maths problems,’ Danica explains, but the book has more than just helpful methods, and there are also testimonials from women who use maths in their career. ‘These are women who are fashionable and fabulous, and all the other things that girls are being taught to admire in teen magazines, but these women are also really smart.’
Indeed, Danica is exactly the sort of role model that combines a great brain and glamour, especially following her shoot in the US edition of Stuff magazine, where she talked about mathematics in her underwear. ‘It’s karate-chopping the stereotype about people who do maths as being nerdy,’ she laughs. But Danica is serious about the thoughtlessness of the current copy of celebrated celebrities. ‘It’s really embarrassing that some people in Hollywood are so irresponsible, not only with their own lives, but with those of the people who look up to them,’ she says.
‘Girls like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson becoming famous for things like not knowing the difference between chicken and tuna is damaging. It teaches girls that dumb is cute and stupid is glamorous.’ When the Lab TV website polled nearly 1,000 girls, 63 per cent said they aspired to be glamour models rather than doctors or teachers, while a quarter thought that lapdancing would be a ‘good profession’.
Topping the list of role models were UK tabloid faves Jordan and Abi Titmuss. Having done photo spreads and fashion shows, Danica is no stranger to glamour, but has the brains to go with it, something that’s not getting through to young girls. ‘I’ve pushed the idea that if you want to be fabulous someday and fashion savvy, and buy lot of shoes and all the other things we love, then you’re going to need a great job with a killer salary to support that. And the jobs that pay the most are the ones that use maths and science.’
She currently answers maths questions on her website, www.danicamckellar.com, and is helping a generation of children who watch re-runs of The Wonder Years with their parents and are looking for homework help. ‘This feels like something that I was meant to do and why I was a math major,’ she says with pride. ‘I get to share what I’ve learned and the tricks that I have, and can hopefully show girls that they don’t have to chose between feeling glamorous and pursuing fun things like fashion, jewellery and make-up and also developing their intelligence – they go hand in hand.’ •
For Time Out magazine – click here for PDF – Danica McKeller