Math Celeb Danica McKellar is Exponentially Positive

danica-forbes.jpg(Math Doesn’t Suck debut: 2007) Shaping Youth is all about using the power of media for positive change, so we’re excited to launch a brand new monthly column focusing on people who are impacting kids favorably! That’s right, positive role models for negative times to try to shift the equation.

We’ll be sharing this feature each month with YPulse readers, and encourage you to submit your own ideas, so have at it! Who should we shine the spotlight on, and why? After all, unearthing positive role models these days can be dicey; today’s ‘it’ girl can be tomorrow’s raunch report.

We figure the media focus on celebrity flameouts in crash-n-burn style is pervasive, but finding genuine people with authentic passion to influence youth favorably is like sifting for gold with a sieve and a pan.

We’ve spent a lot of time tossing out the pyrite chunks of faux fool’s findings (celebs as poseurs for a cause that fall through the colander in the PR-rinse-n-swish) Happily, we hit pay dirt with Danica McKellar, a priceless nugget of treasure to launch our People Shaping Youth monthly series.

Here’s my interview with Danica that ran on YPulse yesterday, which I’ll post here soon. Meanwhile, here’s more about the actual content of Math Doesn’t Suck with links and info galore, including IONtv to catch Danica as Winnie in Wonder Years reruns…

Maybe that’s what I need to start watching with my tween!

Real life role models are hard to find in the media/marketing mainstream lately. Sally Ride is trotted out at every earth, space, and science gig (inc the Google Sky launch)…And Jane Goodall seems like the classroom fave for primatologists with her Roots & Shoots eco-programs and Gombe Chimpanzee blog…But pure math and engineering? Eh. Not so much…

Now, mathematician, actress, wünderkind and author, Danica McKellar is out to light up math-phobic middle school girls with a powerful ‘shout out’ to shine…

You can thrive, not just ‘survive’ math.

Known for her acting in Lifetime’s Inspector Mom, the West Wing, and her signature character of Winnie Cooper on the Emmy-award-winning Wonder Years, Danica’s most recent role selling smarts is the most worthy and inspiring to me.

You’ll quickly see why she’s our ‘perfect pick’ for our new column, “People Shaping Youth.”

Her new book and website, Math Doesn’t Suck, gives girls a forum, concrete solutions, and ‘smart girl resources’ as well as the inside scoop on her own experiences with math terror and trepidation. She flips her early math fears into a fairytale ending, graduating summa cum laude with a math degree from UCLA, a published physics theorem, and a “Smart is cool, intelligence is sexy” mindset that she personifies in living color.

Thankfully, her bestseller-to-be has already received a ton of press. Shaping Youth is forming our own ‘tween’ mini-math club to test out some of her tactics, but so far, here’s my take:

Math Doesn’t Suck is fun, accessible, and written in a ‘just hangin’ out with the girls’ slumber party tonality that works. She takes preteen angst, identity-searching, and interests varying from boys and appearance to sports and career and then folds in her own foibles in ‘been there done that’ big sister style.

She’s also using her media star-power to promote math as a confidence builder for everyday living. She shows girls how math concepts of logic and reason apply to a much larger worldview. (and in a world that often lacks these qualities, that’s a big bonus for kids!)

Cover girl for the Mathematical Association of America’s mag way back in April 2001, her mathematical theorem also landed her on NPR last fall (podcast here) and in the US News & World Report collegiate issue where she talks of her experiences at UCLA as a math tutor. Recently she’s been profiled for CNN, Good Magazine, Newsweek, and selected as ABC World News’ Person of the Week with Charles Gibson.

The ABC news feature took on a Web 2.0 component, integrating tween girls’ direct questions in blog-forum format. Here’s the Q&A from Danica’s session (appx. 11pp) in this pdf file.

Content-wise, she’s arming girls with encouraging tips and pragmatic tricks to master fractions, rates, ratios, percentages, that we all know are key to ‘getting it’ over the long haul. She reinforces the need to review and get comfy with times tables and long division to boost core skills and confidence…even though it “looks hard” as my daughter pre-judged quickly, the conversational, chatty, “math secrets” tonality keeps girls in the book, and engaged sans intimidation…

Studies have shown math interest begins to wane in middle school and preteen girls are particularly vulnerable, so Danica’s intervention role is crucial.

Danica’s managed to disguise a solid tutorial of mathematic foundations in a magazine makeover sleeve. Math personality quizzes, horoscope hunches, and voices from real life middle-schoolers are there for a reason…They work.

Granted, she’s taken a bit of flack for the ‘girly girl’ Pretty in Pink approach of factoring lipgloss gift bags or counting bracelet bead patterns but personally I feel this issue is much like math itself…some people “don’t get it” and need it explained more thoroughly.

Sure you could shift the analogies to count soccer points per season or meals per pup for a newborn litter, whatever works for you. She’s just using real life examples girls can relate to…and for her ‘target market’ this is spot on.

Those little glass beads ‘to make a killing on ebay’ are actually a perfect way to visualize mathematical formulas using numerical patterns…What better way to look at multiple configurations than custom-designed jewelry using even/odd pairings and visual counting forms?

Likewise, the savvy ‘percentage off’ sales tags, decimal conversions to determine her friend’s ring size for a gift, or calculations of how much face cream to bring to Bulgaria based on a sample packet of ounces, stepped out in per day/per week packing logistics may seem vapid at first glance until you see the formula in use.

Like our own marketing programs at Shaping Youth, her underlying theme is innovate to educate…

Use whatever it takes to engage, enlighten, inform.

She has middle-school commentary, testimonials from women who shifted from mathphobic to mathlete, and some unabashedly gorgeous human beings to debunk the ‘math is unattractive’ media myth to boot…She sprinkles in celebrity quotes from tween faves like Devon Werkheiser (Ned on Nickelodeon’s Ned’s Declassified) who conveys his preference for intelligent girls to reassure all that ‘dumbing down’ for boys is misguided. Adds in pragmatics, quoting Valery Ortiz (Madison on the N’s South of Nowhere) on money-handling, paying bills, and the need for math in everyday living once you grow up and are out on your own…And sneaks in financial literacy, lessons and life skills like a Trojan Horse crusade.

By revealing her OWN insecurities as part of the universal experience of growing up, girls ‘relate’ in head-nodding gal pal concurrence. My own daughter even liked the ‘Danica’s Diary’ pages that tap into the gut instinct of what’s right, reliable, and real. Though they sometimes read like a truth or dare confessional, if it helps girls navigate the angst and anxiety of this squishy, nebulous time, so much the better.

And when things seem awkward, stressful and insurmountable, girls learn that grappling with unknown outcomes is a worthy challenge in itself…math or otherwise.

A few excerpts from Danica’s book:

“I remember sitting in my 7th grade math class, staring at a quiz as if it were written in Chinese–it might as well have been a blank sheet of paper. Total brain freeze. Nothing made sense…I had studied so hard, but id didn’t seem to make a difference—I barely recognized the math problems on the page. When the bell rang and my quiz was still blank, I wanted to disappear into my chair. I just didn’t want to exist…It was truly one of the most terrifying moments of my life! I had a horrible, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and just sat there as the minutes ticked on, having no idea how to approach these problems…

For reasons I still do not truly understand, Mrs. Jacobson did not collect my quiz at the end of class. Instead she let me stay through recess after all the other kids had left. I remember thinking, “is this fair? Why do I get extra time?” But when I looked at her, she just smiled at me. It’s like she was saying, “I know you can do this.” Somehow, I relaxed, and was able to do some of the problems. I actually scored a C+ on that quiz, and I quickly became an A student in that class. Funny how just relaxing can make such a difference…I might never know why Mrs. Jacobson chose to reach out to me just then. All I know is that her faith in me at that moment is a gift I’ll never forget.”

That ‘relaxing’ theme is something that’s surfacing in yet another new venture for Danica, where she’s teamed up with her mom (a meditation instructor) to create “A Daily Dose of Dharma” for über-busy time-crimped souls who need to re-energize and release stress in compact tidbits of yoga and meditation. I’ll save that interview for another time, but here’s the dvd promotional trailer to give you a flavor of her belief that mind and body are comingled as an integral part of the health equation.

She also addresses how our society’s celebrity-mania and appearance-based obsession can foul up self-esteem and make your own moral compass go haywire in this introspective blurb:

“When you’re acting in front of millions of people you get a lot of attention that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with who you are…After a few years of this, I started to wonder if people would still like me if I weren’t on TV…Eventually, whenever someone would tell me how much they liked my character, I would say “thank you,” and then feel kind of empty inside. I started to question my self-worth.”

She goes on to tell a similar story of a high school friend with beautiful, long, red hair who received nonstop compliments from friends to strangers and suddenly showed up one day with short hair, dyed jet black when she was about 17. Danica explained:

“She needed to know what people liked about HER, not her hair. She had that same empty feeling on the inside that I did when people talked about me being on TV. She wanted to be valued for something real, for what was on the inside.”

I had a friend like that who did the exact same thing once we became roomies in college, determined she wasn’t going to let her legacy be her long blonde hair…AND ironically, she also ended up tackling MATH as a rebellious move toward her father, completing college as an accountant for a Big Eight firm. (he’d patronized her with ‘low expectations’ primarily encouraging her appearance assets)

Danica mirrors that story here:

“I’ll never forget what happened in my ninth grade science class. After our first test, my science teacher pulled me aside and expressed surprise at my high score, exclaiming how unexpected it was that I would be a good student in science. “You just seem so outgoing and you wear such brightly colored earrings. I just didn’t think you would be very smart.”

Can you believe it? Somehow she thought that just because I was socially well-adjusted and cared about how I looked, I wouldn’t be intelligent. I was floored. All based on appearances! The teacher was judging me according to the stereotypes that are so deeply ingrained in our society. I remember thinking, “I’ll show HER I don’t have to look like a dork to be smart!” I mean, who did she think she was? She probably had no idea how backward her thinking was or how it might have affected me in a negative way.”

Bravo, Danica…your words of wisdom resonate with profound implications. It gives the volunteers here at Shaping Youth renewed hope that media messaging will take a positive turn toward more meaningful pursuits. As Danica summed:

“Take it from me…NOTHING can take the place of the confidence that comes from developing your intelligence–not beauty, or fame, or anything else “superficial.” Working on math sharpens your brain, actually making you smarter in all areas. Intelligence is real, it’s lasting, and no one can take it away from you. Ever.”

Additional Math Tidbits

Math Gateway (of the Mathematical Association of America) has a nice piece on Danica, but even more interesting to me was the next article on Hollywood fallacies in physics, where film and media foul up the works with lousy science and math literacy making ignorant suppositions that viewers actually believe! One UCF professor turned it into a popular class to engage kids, called “Physics in Films” and others are lobbying for accuracy in math & science as well. (Sounds like they need a decent script consultant to me…er…Danica, you wanna moonlight?)

ScienceBlogs has some great commentary in this post on Danica’s book by Tara Smith. She adds that Danica gives an “overview of a problem, and then shows how to solve it, step-by-step–sometimes in her own handwriting. This gives the book a bit more of a personal touch, making it less of a study guide or textbook and more like borrowing your smart friend’s class notes. She also includes memory tricks, shortcuts, and alternate strategies to arrive at an answer, so different types of learners should be able to find a strategy that clicks with them.” COMPLETELY agree.

Tara’s first post is a prelude to her subsequent interview found here. (I’m using the same approach, albeit w/media/mktg. topics) Have to say, I find the responses on ScienceBlogs particularly fun, like this one from ‘Ron’ commenting on the infamous Barbie doll who blurted out, “math is hard.”

He wryly says, “When that Barbie was released, I wanted to reprogram the voice chips to say Partial differential equations with Neumann boundary conditions are hard. It’s not that I completely disagreed with Mattel, I just thought Barbie should have been more specific. Imagine the conversations: “Mommy, what’s a Neumann boundary condition?” “Well you see dear, that’s when you fix the value of the derivative on the boundary curve.” The Aetiology blog also had some solid leads buried, like:

In Code: A Mathematical Journey about 16-year old Sarah Flannery who made worldwide headlines as Ireland’s Young Scientist of the year in ’99. (yes, she authored the book, too!)

Carol Vorderman appears to be a U.K. version of a math role model on the celebrity circuit, as co-presenter of a popular game show, ‘Countdown,’ a brain training game called Carol Vorderman’s Mind Aerobics together with BSkyB, and a Sudoku video game for PlayStation 2 in the U.S. Get this, “she regularly tops polls for Most Sexy, Most Popular, and The Women Most British Men Want to Marry by the largest ever online poll for”

Editorial Comment from Amy: Ahem. So could we PLEASE ditch casting math roles as social misfits in “Ugly Betty” style with stereotyped braces, pigtails, glasses, pocket protectors and mismatched plaid? It’s sooooooo ‘yesterday’ as the kids would say…

Overcome Stereotypes and Fear of Math by Robin McMaster, PhD— An excellent piece on Danica with embedded links to tons of research on this issue that merits more than a look-see…I’ll be delving much deeper into Brain Based Biz’ blog! –AJ

Danica McKellar, First Honoree For People Shaping YouthLink to our own interview w/Danica re: media/mktg’s portrayal of math, etc.



  1. And this site blew me away too…”High Speed Vedic Mathematics” a rapidfire way of brain calculation whereby you can do supposedly do complex calculations like 998 x 997 in less than five seconds flat…Gee, wish I had THAT during my SAT exams 😉

  2. Hello

    Very interesting information! Thanks!


  3. Note: Danica fans…An update here, she’s just gotten married. this is a nice profile piece on what she’s been up to lately!

    Amy Jussel’s last blog post..Influencers, Accountability and the Global Cost to Youth

  4. I gained a lot of insight from the post you wrote called Shaping Youth » Math Celeb Danica McKellar is Exponentially Positive

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