Danica McKellar, First Honoree For “People Shaping Youth”

danica-pencil-shot.gifWhen the media and marketing machine work in positive ways to trigger youth enthusiasm, it can skyrocket into a global phenom in a heartbeat. We’ve seen movements take hold and spread like wildfire using the internet as fuel.

From disaster relief like ICare and Humanlink to teen blogging projects and virtual videos (Global Kids’ amazing year long after-school machinima project, A Child’s War, comes to the media screen in Teen Second Life) the potential and promise for world-changing astounds.

People Shaping Youth is all about lighting the match to ignite that passion, honoring people who are influencing youth favorably as role models and adding meaningful pursuits into the media dialogue. We’re proud to honor Danica McKellar as our first recipient of the People Shaping Youth monthly spotlight, and hope her efforts trigger enthusiasm and math partnerships exponentially.

In timely evidence that advertising and promotional tie-ins don’t have to ‘suck,’ Danica just announced that Tutor.com is offering 75 minutes of FREE on-demand, live tutoring for anyone who buys a copy of “Math Doesn’t Suck,” including those who already own it!

An hour or so with a professional tutor? I’m snagging my daughter to claim her free math minutes on this one! And if she won’t, I will. Meanwhile, here’s my interview with Danica on virtual worlds, digital dialogues and ways we can shift media momentum to the positive. Enjoy!

Shaping Youth: How did your ‘guest appearance’ go in Habbo’s virtual world? Were the kids more interested in you as a celebrity, or did they ask you specific math questions?

Danica McKellar: The whole ‘virtual thing’ blew my mind. I really want to reach out to that audience, and I know they’re communicating in a nascent form, but I was just…well…not sure what I was doing! I mean, you’ve got a whole room of a hundred people texting you at lightening speed with their little avatars asking you questions…I guess there’s an element of “what is” vs. “what you wish it were…”

Shaping Youth: How so? I mean, what would you do differently, content wise?

Danica McKellar: Well, I learned I didn’t really control the content at all. I couldn’t. It doesn’t work that way. It was more of a “what’s your favorite color” kind of dialogue, and at one point I turned to my colleague and said, “ok, so …what should I do here?!” She goes, ‘Um, ask them if they like pancakes…Tell them to wave if they like pancakes…” and suddenly all these little avatars are waving at me and talking about their favorite foods, springing off in a whole new direction.

I guess I feel like it’s an incredible opportunity to reach out to kids, but the content needs to go beyond fast chat thumb texting to get more meaningful. The conversation could be more real, more productive…once it’s shaped and formed further.

Shaping Youth: There are places that DO that, like in Teen Second Life, the Global Kids Digital Initiative is doing incredible work with simulated learning environments, concerts, and youth as global thought leaders in the ‘what can we do to make a difference’ realm.

Danica McKellar: I’m definitely interested in exploring all the various internet opportunities further. New media all has a level of learning curve involved…I’d just like to see CONTENT take hold in a more meaningful way.

Shaping Youth: Do you feel virtual worlds (Habbo, Gaia, Zwinktopia, Teen Second Life, etc.) could be used in helpful math simulations of reality? Like integrating virtual ‘field trips’ to show kids that no matter what career path they choose, math is most likely used? (We do this at S.Y. sometimes where we take animal lovers to vet offices to see the dosage/meds and math required, or tour design schools to see how fractions, line extension projections, and bolts of cloth are just a few of the many measurements required in the fashionista realm)

Danica McKellar: Sure…Might be an interesting approach, again, I don’t know enough about it, but I’m interested in opening up a dialogue on ANY of these internet forms that get kids thinking in useful ways. Part of my own turnaround with math was finding a way to make it relevant…and also having a patient, funny teacher I could really relate to. Encouragement helps, and for me, visual imagery and finding ways to use real-life math examples really helped. Even back then, if you would’ve told me I’d be a math major a decade later, I’d would’ve said you need your head examined!

Shaping Youth: Can you speak to the media/math stereotypes and pre-programming of girls to dislike math? (e.g. casting as brainiac, unattractive math club misfits or social outcast bookworms) I remember watching Disney’s Suite Life beauty pageant episode blanching at a ‘math moment’ when the ‘smart girl’ cashier is chided for her brains and blurts out in protest, “Well…Orlando Bloom likes smart girls!” She’s met with a sarcastic sneer from her ‘mean girl’ peer who whispers to another friend in ‘odd girl out’ style, “NOT!”

As a mom, I’m thinking, “grrreat job in one sitcom media moment squeezing in the ‘looks are everything’ mythology to tweens, while simultaneously slamming any acumen for math, AND reinforcing the need to ‘dumb down’ in order to make yourself more attractive. Just ducky…sigh.

Danica McKellar: Hmn. Well, stereotypes are ‘convenient.’ They’re a media shortcut. It’s a quick take snapshot that writers often use because they can ‘say more by doing less.’ People automatically ‘get it’ when you’re dealing with limited time in a script to portray a given character, so it’s a fast way to typecast your role and move the story along… It’s also a common crutch.

Shaping Youth: As a writer/producer, I not only SEE that, I guard against it. What can we do as media people to paint a more realistic picture?

Danica McKellar: Simple things. For instance, if you have a scientist, or a mathematician make them a woman instead of a man…the characterization is subtle, even subliminal…but it all sinks in on some level.

Shaping Youth: My own 7th grade middle-schooler saw me writing this article, picked up your book with curiosity, flipped through the pages and mumbled, “Whoa this looks hard!” followed by, “Wow, she sure is pretty!” All I could think of was, “yep, she’s Danica’s target market alright.” —Any recommendations for gently responding to this level of ‘math anxiety’/appearance-based cue correlation?

Danica McKellar: I’d start by saying she should read it rather than flip through it. Just like we’ve been saying, it’s not always about what something looks like, it’s the content inside…classic example! Also, everyone has different learning styles, (kinetic, auditory, visual, etc.) so I try to vary my math approach by coming at the same topic from different directions. Some girls learn visually (the birthday cake model) some use pattern based logic, (odd/even beading-bracelet configurations) some draw from what’s happening in their own preteen worlds to make it relevant (determining the greatest common factor using ‘crushes’ as the GCF commonality point) and some people rely on math memory tricks. (e.g. “multiplying monkeys” using prime factor “trees” with low hanging ‘fruit’; monkeys are primates; prime numbers are ‘primitive/less evolved’—get it? You begin to see she’s not dealing with monkey business at all, but using a stepby step analogy that distills a complex process into a math mneumonic)

Shaping Youth: What do you say to critics of your ‘pink think’ methodology who feel you may be reinforcing girls’ stereotypes in pop culture?

Danica McKellar: There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking pink or being feminine and I’m certainly not saying it’s all girls like, or it’s their only value…I’m saying you can’t ignore what makes women women! I mean, c’mon, do you like lipgloss? I’ve never been one to go for that whole ‘make it all alike, we’re all the same’ assessment…Girls want to be able to keep being girls! To me, we need to recontextualize the way we view femininity. There’s absolutely nothing negative or ‘dumb’ about being female, and if we’re genetically inclined to like certain things or value attractiveness in its many forms, so what? If a girl wants to use her math skills to be a CEO of a doll-making company, is that any different than any other CEO? The term feminist in itself has different connotations…You have to be careful with the way you use it, because it gets misinterpreted so often.

Shaping Youth: You’re saying it’s a loaded term? Is there a new one or a better one to convey the concept of equality?

Danica McKellar: Not really, but it IS more about equalism and enabling girls to be who they are without apologizing for liking pink or justifying and explaining the desire to be attractive. We all want that on some level, right? When it comes to math, I think we use whatever works to get the point across that people can best relate to.

Especially with girls, since there are pre-determined judgment calls when it comes to math…many times there’s a stereotype that boys “need to understand math” and for girls it’s more of a “bonus.” Teachers don’t necessarily even mean to convey this but it comes across in media, and then reflects in society in terms of girls struggling with the messages of how they look and being more attractive vs. who they are as a person, and what career they might want to pursue.

Shaping Youth: Your “smart is sexy” motto seems like a media makeover in the making…Do you think we can get kids to apply the same fanfare they devote to celebrities to math? Since kids are ‘sold’ media stereotypes and behavioral cues that work against their minds and bodies every single day, do you think this is a chance to backflip the message using pop culture tactics and debunk toxic media math myths to make a movement out of this?

Danica McKellar: Well, first, I always tell girls they are in training right now to be the fabulous, bright woman they see themselves as in the future. It’s like looking ahead and imagining yourself as the high-powered attorney or the owner of a fashion magazine or whatever you want to grow up to be and then working backwards to where you are now. Every challenge you overcome, every homework problem you think you can’t do, but then solve through determination means you’re exercising your brain and your beauty, inside and out to become the young woman you aspire to be.

And sure, I absolutely do want math to seem sexier because intelligence is an essential part of that equation. As for celebrities, there are plenty of smart, ‘hot’ women, like Claire Danes who went toYale, or Natalie Portman from Harvard, but it’s more about success through imitation…If we start creating more positive role models, hopefully more will also ‘appear.’ I’m hoping the book inspires some of that and gets more people thinking in this direction…movement or not!

Shaping Youth: Are there any math movie portrayals that inspire?

Danica McKellar: You mean that aren’t sociopaths or crazy geniuses like Russell Crowe played in A Beautiful Mind? Hmn…not easy to come by. Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting had a positive math role, and Numb3rs inspires mathematical thinking of course, but still, math is often viewed from an ‘outsider’ lens of ‘genius’ level complexity…there aren’t many ‘normal’ characterizations. Even though I really like the show Numb3rs as a positive math role for kids’ exposure.

Shaping Youth: I know women mathematicians and engineers are more prevalent than they used to be but the numbers are still quite low (28% and 11% respectively) we’ve been thinking about using your book to create an experiential ‘girls math club’ using some of your ‘tips and tricks’ to make it hands-on and fun. Any advice?

Danica McKellar: Definitely keep the group similar in skill sets. Like any academic group dynamic, there’s bound to be an ‘alpha dog’ others will defer to, so it’s important to approach math by keeping the group close in age range and math skills. The last thing you want to do is make them feel any more intimidated by their peers. Since it’s unisex, you won’t have the gender issues to deal with.

Shaping Youth: Can you talk a bit more about that? The ‘dumbing down for boys’ posturing and girls ‘losing their voice’ element that studies show transpires in middle-school?

Danica McKellar: Well, I went to an all girls school in 7-10th grade, where women were valued for their strength and girls didn’t ‘dumb down’ in those vulnerable years. We emerged as strong, independent women with a solid sense of self, so we weren’t easily swayed by peer pressure or put downs when we got back into an environment with boys.
I’m really fortunate that my own experience turned out that way…That’s part of the reason I wanted to focus on just girls in the book so that it reads like we’re just hanging out, I’m your pal, you can really dig these scary fractions, and rid yourself of math anxiety and test-taking stuff. Math Doesn’t Suck! It really doesn’t!

Shaping Youth: Have you ever ‘played dumb’ to keep from intimidating a man?

Danica McKellar: Honestly? I guess I’d say in high school a bit, maybe my early twenties, it didn’t last…neither did the relationships! If you’re uncomfortable being yourself and you have to adjust who you are, eventually it’s gonna catch up with you and you’ll find you really don’t have much in common. The people that are worthwhile to connect with appreciate your brains as much as your beauty. Guys will rise to the challenge, they really will. Lots of hot women are smart. Smart is sexy.

Shaping Youth: Any daily mantra or motto to leave us with?

Danica McKellar: Tough one. Hard to pick. I think I’ll stay with “smart IS sexy.”

Shaping Youth: Thanks, Danica…I hope it catches on.

3-25-09 Update: Danica Fans, this blog post that just linked to Shaping Youth adds a nice recap of what Danica’s been up to lately, including just getting married! Congratulations to all…



  1. Excellent piece on Danica at “Brain Based Biz” called “Overcome Stereotypes and Fears of Math”

    Link is here:

  2. chi-na sakoma says

    wow my mom said that she is going to buy this book to my friend in japan. of corse im going to read it. where do you buy this book math doesn’t suck?

  3. Hi, Chi-na. You can get it anywhere, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or from Danica’s website direct (links above!) e.g. http://tinyurl.com/2j4xx5
    ttys, Amy

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