Meet Celebrity Mathematician Danica McKellar

Danica McKellar became a star 20 years ago when she played Winnie Cooper on the hit-series, The Wonder Years. Since then, McKellar has re-appeared on television many times but she has also pursued a second career as a mathematician and math advocate.

Danica McKellar
Danica McKellar on the cover of "Math Doesn't Suck." (Courtesy Penguin Group.)

After leaving The Wonder Years, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at the University of California at Los Angeles and proved her own theorem, Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z-squared.

More recently, she authored two books, Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math that explain math concepts to teenage girls.

McKellar travelled to New York City over the weekend to address thousands of educators and policy makers at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference about how they can help girls succeed in math. She took some time to chat with me about her work as a mathematician and math advocate.

What was high school like for a television star and how did you get interested in math?

I was on Wonder Years from the time I was 12 until I was 18. All during that time, I went to a difficult prep school. I would go back and forth and call my teachers at home to find out when the next test was scheduled… In my mind and my parents’ minds, education came first.

I had a solid base in math. I went to an all-girls school. That environment was great for girls, particularly in math and science where the stereotype is that girls are not as good at it. I developed my love of math through high school.

In college, I thought I would get a film degree. I had to take some sort of math or science class, so I enrolled in Multivariable Calculus. But I was worried. I did not think that I would be able to hack it.

I took BC Calculus in High School and I got a 5 on the AP exam. If not me, then who should be taking this class? But I realized I did not look like who I thought would be a math major. I did not realize how the stereotypes were affecting me. It took me a while to realize, yes, I belong here. Of course I belong here.

What do you like about math?

Math, to me, it’s the greatest brain exercise. It’s way better than crossword puzzles. It’s like going to the gym for your brain and you stay sharp, you stay strong.

Math is a lot more creative than people realize. When you are first learning math, you have to learn the basic tools, but in college in calculus and beyond, you get to play with those tools more. You have to be imaginative and creative. It’s like being on a treasure hunt. You have to prove things... You end up dealing with infinity a lot, for example. I love infinitely small things and infinitely many of them. It feels like you are playing with magic.

What is it like to prove a math theorem?

I had a chalkboard in my condo. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea sometimes and work through it for hours. You try out stuff. You think this is interesting over here. You try this, and you try that. You get new ideas. Sometimes you find four days go by and you have gone down one path and it’s a dead end.

Are there any new math theorems in your future?

When I spoke in front of Congress in 2000, I made a pledge at that time to be an ambassador of math. I had a great time doing research. I could definitely see myself doing that at some time again. But I’m in the public eye. I love math, I know how to teach it and how to make it entertaining it. I think it’s almost my duty.

I decided to gear my books toward middle school girls, because middle school is when kids hit a stumbling block. That’s when it goes from rote to conceptual thinking, fractions and percents. Not only do the teachers need to be better and more trained, it’s also more demanding on kids’ emotional development. They are going through so many changes. The Wonder Years was made about that time of life. Girls are worried about, “Am I popular?” “Will that boy like me over there?”

I use a lot of topics to teach the math in my books to keep the girls interested. I use examples about cliques and YouTube to teach the associative property or exponents.

What was it like to be a woman in a math program? Were there other role models for you?

For the first couple of years, about a third of my classmates were women. But by the time I got into the heavy duty or graduate-level classes, it was maybe 10 percent. That’s changing. But even if more women are majoring in math, they are less likely to have anything to do with math and science careers.

When a woman hits a stumbling block, she is more likely to see it as evidence that she was an imposter all along, as opposed to a guy, who is likely to see it just as a bump in the road. That moment can come in middle school or high school or it can come after college, if a woman believes she can’t raise a family and be a scientist.

That’s why they tend to give up more. They were trained for an early age to believe that it’s not for them. They are visitors.

That is the reason why my books look like teen magazines, to tell girls this book is for you. You belong here. This can be yours.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  March 9, 2009; 9:07 AM ET
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Comments



Annenberg Media has a 13 part video program on various math topics.
All 13 half hour parts can be viewed on line - no fee - at the web site. Click on the icon VOD - for Video On Demand.
http://learner.org/resources/series210.html?pop=yes&pid=2283#
don

Posted by: donpbs | March 9, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Michael -

Thanks for the update on Danica -- I knew she had been in math/physics graduate school and wondered if she finished and made it a career. I'm glad to see she has managed to keep both her acting and academic interests.

Regarding her perception of women in math departments my own experience (an American born man) is there may be a strong cultural aspect at play as well. Asian men and women are strongly represented in graduate programs here -- perhaps the gender perceptions are different in their home countries and Asian women feel more comfortable in the department.

Posted by: fedbert | March 9, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

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