Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interview with Math Whiz Danica McKellar

At Aetiology Tara Smith has a great interview with actress and math-lover Danica McKellar. McKellar is probably best known (at least by people my age) for her role as Winnie in The Wonder Years. After leaving the show McKellar attended UCLA, where she majored in mathematics, publishing a proof (pdf) and graduating summa cum laude. Since then, she's been actively promoting math and science education for girls. She recently publishing a book about mathematics aimed at middle school girls, Math Doesn't Suck.

In the interview Tara asked her about her use of stereotypically "girly" examples.

The fact that it's not a mixed signal is exactly the central message of my book: Girls can enjoy being "girly" and "fabulous" alongside developing their brain - and in fact, in the book I develop the thesis that their brain happens to be their most important tool in becoming a fabulous young woman someday. They're not at odds; they can fit perfectly together. And the more they can be seen to fit together, the more girls will be attracted to math.

The media tells girls that math/science lovers are nerdy white males with pocket protectors, etc, and that girls ought to focus on looking like the women they see in magazines. While that's clearly a superficial goal, let's face it, things like makeup and hair products and fashion can be a lot of fun. Why should I be telling girls they have to shun all of that fun in order to develop their minds? It doesn't make sense, it certainly doesn't sound appealing, and it's not even realistic. I think most women would agree that it's fun to feel attractive and hip.

That sounds like a great approach: letting middle school girls know that enjoying math doesn't make them unfeminine. Math is for both the frumpy and the fashionable!

Read the whole interview. For more about the book, read Smith's review of Math Doesn't Suck.

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