A Lesson In Making Math Cool For Girls

Women make up nearly half of the college-educated workforce, but hold less than a quarter of STEM jobs — as in jobs that involve science, technology, engineering and math. Actress turned mathematician Danica McKellar wants to turn those numbers around. She speaks to host Michel Martin about her latest math book for young girls, Girls Get Curves.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we turn to a woman who's figuring out how to close the gender gap in tech careers. Jobs in the so-called stem fields - that's science, technology, engineering and math - are among the fastest growing in the country, but while women make up nearly half of the college-educated workforce, they hold less than 25 percent of stem jobs.

And, on this program and others, you often hear educators and various political leaders bemoaning that fact and talking about how to change it. Now, we hear a perspective from someone you might not expect. Danica McKellar starred as Winnie in the 1980s family show, "The Wonder Years." Here she is in the series finale, trying to break up again with Kevin, played by Fred Savage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "THE WONDER YEARS")

DANICA MCKELLAR: (as Winnie) Kevin, here's what I think. I think this had to happen today, tomorrow, someday. It isn't like we're kids anymore. Everybody grows up.

MARTIN: Well, Danica McKellar did grow up. She went on to graduate summa cum laude, thank you very much, from UCLA with a degree in mathematics and, since then, she's written four math education books. Her latest is "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape." And Danica McKellar is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCKELLAR: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, for people who aren't familiar with the books, they are a little different from the math books that you sometimes see in the - kind of the summer work book section of your, you know, toy store or book store. For example, on the cover of this one, there's - how do you attract guys? Eight self-esteem boosters, an inside body image quiz. So a little different.

MCKELLAR: Yes.

MARTIN: How did get the idea for this kind of book?

MCKELLAR: Well, first of all, I was a math major and loved math and kept encountering women who would say, oh, I could never do math. I was never good at it. And then you could talk to them longer and find out there was one teacher or one bad experience they had that was really discouraging and because we are surrounded by stereotypes that tell us that girls are not supposed to be as good at math, you know, when girls are inundated with that and they do have a bad experience, they tend to give up a lot faster than they would if they weren't already of the mindset of - I'm not supposed to be good at this, anyway.

And I just kept seeing that happen again and again and I thought, you know, I think I can do something about this. Maybe I can be, like, an ambassador for math because I love math and I don't fit the stereotype of the typical person who would be good at math and it's been really exciting and the girls who read my books - they're now starting to grow up and I'm hearing feedback about how they decided to be math majors and how they feel confident and how they feel good about themselves and I'm just thrilled to be a part of their journey.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that you do in the books is that you make it relatable to things that girls are probably talking about or thinking about, anyway. For example, in the most recent book, you use Barbie's unrealistic body measurements to explain similar shapes and ratios. Talk a little bit about that or how you got that idea.

MCKELLAR: Well, really, I'm explaining Barbie's unrealistic ratios by using the stuff that I am teaching them, these similar triangles and proportions and, to me, it's like, well, you know what? Math is a language, first of all. That's just a true statement. It's the language of the sciences and it is a language that you can talk about a lot of different things in. You can talk about your taxes or you can talk about Barbie. I mean, Barbie's a little young for high schoolers, but you can talk about things that teenage girls are thinking about, popularity, boys. I don't know. Pizza, puppies, you name it, it's in the books.

MARTIN: What kind of response - you've already started talking about this - that you get from educators, parents and kids. I mean, we know that kids really enjoy the books, but what about educators and parents? What are you hearing from them?

MCKELLAR: Parents are grateful. A lot of them talk about how much cheaper it is than a tutor and how much more effective it's been. I guess some of them might not have the best tutors. I don't know. Educators love it, as well. The only negatives I've really gotten is, I would say, from administrators, some of them who are a little hesitant about the titles. You know, "Math Doesn't Suck." I used to - I would get principals emailing me and saying, I'm sure the book is very good, but we don't even allow people to wear t-shirts that have that word on it. How can we let them carry the book?

And so what was happening was kids were sneaking my book into their locker at school to show their friends and to, like, do their math homework with and I just thought to myself, you know what? If I'm getting kids to sneak a math book into school, I'm doing something right.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Danica McKellar. Now, I know you probably remember her from "The Wonder Years," but we are talking about her best-selling math books. Her latest is "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape."

We mentioned at the beginning of the conversation that you've always liked math and you were never, you know, discouraged by the stereotype of - oh, girls can't do math. Oh, math is hard. I mean, where did we hear that?

MCKELLAR: Speaking of Barbie...

MARTIN: Well, I wasn't going to say. But why do you think you never got kind of bitten by that discouragement bug?

MCKELLAR: It actually - it bit me a little. I - in the seventh grade, I actually was really afraid of math and I would come home and I would cry because I was afraid of my math homework. I didn't realize at the time that it was just a teacher who didn't really know how to relate the material to us and explain it very clearly. Midway through the year, they brought a different teacher in and it was amazing - the difference. She made math fun and interesting and friendly. She used to have us lay down on the floor and do, like, a five minute relaxation exercise before we took our math tests. She was amazing and her whole attitude completely changed my attitude about math.

When I got to college, I did not think I would be able to handle college math and here it is. I had taken the calculus BC exam, the AP calculus BC exam, and I'd gotten a five, which is the highest score you can get and it's the hardest AP calculus class you can take in high school. I didn't think I'd be able to handle college math and who did I think would be able to handle college math if I'm really honest with myself? Somebody who didn't look like me, probably a guy. They'd be really good at college math. Right? But I wouldn't be. I don't really belong.

I didn't look the part. I didn't think I'd be able to handle it and that's the only explanation. That's the only - all those little stereotypes, all those messages - they got in and they damaged me. Thank goodness I'm stubborn and I like a challenge. I was like, oh, I'm just going to try it, anyway. I'm just going to go for it. What the heck? And, for me, actually, thank goodness I got through that fear that I had because math ended up being something that bridged me from the child star thing, which can be very hard on the self-esteem, into who I was going to end up being, which is a confident young woman who knows she's good at something hard.

MARTIN: I do have to ask you, though, are you ever concerned that, when you're using subjects that are more girl-friendly, are you ever concerned that perhaps you're not preparing girls adequately for the fact that the profession is still very male-dominated or male-centric, if you want to put it that way? You know, it's the same question people have when girls go to a predominantly - like a single-sex academic environment, for example, or for even a historically black college or university, there are always people who will say, well, that's fine. It's nice that that was comfortable there, but the world isn't that way and you're going to be at a disadvantage when you go into a...

MCKELLAR: You know what? I hear your point.

MARTIN: ...male-dominated classroom. You see what I'm saying?

MCKELLAR: This is what I would say to that. That's like telling you - that's like saying, well, when you're raising your child, you shouldn't really be very nice and don't be fair because - you know what? The world's not fair. Like, don't give them too much love.

I say build them up strong when they're young. Build them strong. I went to an all girls middle school and high school and it helped to make me as confident as I am. I really believe that.

MARTIN: Danica McKellar is an actress and math advocate, an educator. Her latest book is "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape" and she joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Good luck to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCKELLAR: Thank you so much.

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