Actress Danica McKellar Solves For 'X'

In her new book Hot X: Algebra Exposed, actress and math advocate Danica McKellar shares her secrets for solving algebra problems — and navigating high school social life. McKellar discusses the book, and explains why she tailors her math teaching techniques toward girls.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, our favorite actress-mathematician is back with a new book.

You may know Danica McKellar as Winnie from "The Wonder Years" or from her work on "The West Wing" or even from her previous appearances on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Danica's first two books, "Math Doesn't Suck" and "Kiss My Math," have made it to the New York Times Bestseller List, and they have helped countless girls navigate decimals and fractions, and occasionally, they come away with a better feeling about math. We hope more than occasionally any of that anxiety goes away.

She's put together a new book that's called "Hot X: Algebra Exposed," and it's subtitled "Word Problems, Polynomials, Quadratic Equations and More." Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. DANICA McKELLAR (Author, "Hot X: Algebra Exposed"): Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: And we have something else in common. Now we're both guest stars on "The Big Bang Theory."

Ms. McKELLAR: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: I know. It's a great show.

FLATOW: It's a great - tell me how, what's different - third book. What's different about this book than your other two books?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, this is algebra.

FLATOW: Right. Oh, this is a tough one.

Ms. McKELLAR: This is the Big Kahuna, yeah, exactly. The other two books are algebra-readiness books, you could say.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: This one really tackles algebra. We, you know, I mean, everything's in there, quadratic formula and completing the square and just, you know, hard, you know, negative exponents, all the hard stuff.

But I had a really fun time making the hard stuff accessible and putting it in the context of things that girls are already thinking about, like popularity and having a crush on a boy and shoes and shopping and all the other fun stuff that we girls have been obsessed with since the pre-teen years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And "Hot X."

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

FLATOW: Who came up with that?

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, my husband comes up with all the titles to my books. "Hot X"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And the X meaning the X in algebra, right?

Ms. McKELLAR: Of course. The X, yeah, X plays a large part in algebra.

FLATOW: Your sister, who is a lawyer, has an essay in there on domestic violence.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: How is that related to math?

Ms. McKELLAR: Okay, so in these books, not only do I teach girls math, but I teach them about finding self-respect and the confidence that comes from feeling smart and capable. And I thought it was important to bring up the idea of choosing the right guys.

And it's a really important thing. Teenage girls these days are more and more getting lured into thinking they should dumb themselves down, and that's going to attract the wrong kind of guy, and it's serious. It's serious business.

And because my sister's a lawyer, she's actually done a lot of pro bono work with women who have been in very bad situations and have had children that have been taken from them by abusive husbands, I mean, just horrible stories.

And it's, like, you know what, girls? Find your self-respect now. Don't dumb yourselves down. Think of yourself as capable and worthy of finding a guy who is going to respect you, too. It's so important, I mean, and the confidence you get from feeling smart and tackling something like mathematics, which is a challenge, right? Math is hard.

When you know that you can overcome challenges, you do gain that self-respect, and then you won't end up in a situation that you regret later on.

FLATOW: There have some people who have said, they've read your books and say you know what? While you're trying to draw girls in to be interested in math, you might be reinforcing some of the stereotypes that all teenage girls are boy-crazy, or they're fashionistas and things like that, the kinds of things you might not want to be reinforcing. How do you react to that?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, the issue with that being a bad thing is if you think that you're supposed to be a fashionista at the expense of not also being smart. You know, there's such an identification with being a fashionista and being boy-crazy, with being a ditz...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: ...which doesn't have to be the case because let's face it, at that age, that is what girls are thinking about. It's what I was thinking about. But you can be fashion-crazy and boy-crazy, and you can be all those things. You can be obsessed with makeup and hair products and, you know, your appearance and still be absolutely making smart life decisions and work on your smarts, develop your smarts by studying something like math, and then you'll make much better decisions on the brands of clothing that you buy or whatever it is that you want to, you know, maybe take the environment into account.

There's tons of - anything in life is made better from feeling smart and capable, and mathematics is the best tool I've found to develop those feelings.

FLATOW: Well, this certainly is what we might call in the old days a girly book, a girly-girl's book, but you do hear from boys.

Ms. McKELLAR: I do.

FLATOW: I saw you had a few letters from boys in your books.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, I get emails all the time, yes, from boys.

FLATOW: And what do they say? What is their...?

Ms. McKELLAR: They - you know, they say things like oh, okay, so your books are kind of girly, but, I mean, now I understand decimals better. I finally understand how to solve for X. So thanks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: And then a lot of them say, too, that they actually understand how girls think better now.

FLATOW: Interesting.

Ms. McKELLAR: I mean, let's not - let's face it. Some men read Cosmo because they want to get insight into women, same thing for teenage boys and my books.

FLATOW: Well, and teenage girls are a little ahead of boys...

Ms. McKELLAR: In some ways, yeah, in some respects.

FLATOW: In their maturity at those young teen ages, aren't they?

Ms. McKELLAR: It seems that way, yes.

FLATOW: And so it might be, you may be talking to somebody who's more receptive than the boys who are still - lord knows what they're thinking about at 13, 14.

Ms. McKELLAR: I certainly don't know what they're thinking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: I know girls really well. Boys are a mystery still.

FLATOW: Well, you also recommend in your book that girls keep a journal. Why is that?

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely. Journal-keeping for me was a huge part of my development of self-awareness at that age. I could write my feelings out and express them because, you know, with that feeling, especially for girls, just like boys are going through their own hormonal changes, and they've got testosterone, and it makes them want to play violent video games and - for girls, we have a lot of hormonal changes at that time, too, and they're rushing through our body, and they make us have all these feelings.

And some of them feel really irrational. In fact, I teach them in the context of irrational numbers. I mean, I talk about this stuff in that context. And you need to have the ability, a safe place, like a journal, where you can write down all the feelings you're having, no matter if they make sense or not, and then you can sort of sort through them and pull out the stuff that does make sense from the stuff that doesn't.

And I, in fact, talk about that in the chapter of reducing radical expressions, where you actually pull out, literally, the rational part from the irrational part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. And there are lots of those. Let's go to Zan(ph) in Grinnell, Iowa. Is that where...?

ZAN (Caller): Oh, hi, yes. I was definitely not a girly-girl in junior high and didn't like math until I went to college, actually. But I think that maybe earlier on, we could teach it emphasizing a social aspect because I think girls are more relational at an early age than boys.

And we - and I have in my head a series of videos where the numbers and the letters, like X's and Y's, are characters. And they interact, and they play games, and they - and so if people got invested in the drama of math through thinking of them as characters and that they could speak, then I think that that would be, they would establish a relationship. And then when they got to the teenage years or the, you know, middle-school years, they would already have them as friends.

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, you're right. I mean, relationships, that's what girls are obsessed with, relationships with their friends, relationships with themselves, relationships with boys, and that is definitely, I mean, you're totally right.

There's definitely something that girls want to be thinking about and can relate to. I mean, I even - I teach the quadratic formula with a story, in fact, about this girl named Betty, who is in a bad mood, and it's just what you're talking about. I make the symbols of the quadratic formula into characters themselves.

ZAN: Yeah, yeah...

Ms. McKELLAR: The two-way on the bottom of the fraction is actually two snobby girls named Abigail and Anastasia.

FLATOW: And you find that works?

ZAN: Yeah, I was thinking somebody could come downstairs dressed as an improper fraction going out on a date.

Ms. McKELLAR: Exactly.

ZAN: And, you know, the mother says you are not going out of the house until you make yourself proper.

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, you know what's funny, actually in "Math Doesn't Suck," I teach, I talk about if you were improper at a tea party, you might knock over the table because you're too heavy on top. It's exactly - you're totally right. We're - you know, great minds think alike.

FLATOW: Wow. High concept.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, totally, absolutely, it's great. It's great stuff.

FLATOW: You say you use the phraseology and the terminology in all its different aspects. There's a human side, and there's a number side.

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely.

ZAN: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely. It's all about relationships for girls, yep.

FLATOW: Wow. Zan, do you teach math at all?

ZAN: Well, I used to teach economics. Now I farm. But I, yeah, I really - you know, it wasn't until somebody explained - I used to do philosophy. I've had a long life. And when somebody explained math in words, and I thought, well, if I can understand Heidegger, why can't I understand math?

And that's what caused me - it was - I just don't think we say it in words, and we don't, we don't unleash the magic of it.

Ms. McKELLAR: Right, absolutely. I mean, it's all in the way it's presented. Math is the language of the world. So you can speak about anything with that language, and you can make it relatable in any way you want, you know, if you've got a creative teacher.

And I really believe it. I mean, I had different teachers, and one teacher would explain something, and it just felt so dry. Somebody else could present the same topic in a colorful, interesting way with stories, completely different.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Zan.

ZAN: Yeah, I'm - yeah, thank you. Sorry, I shouldn't go on and on. But I'm a mother, and I noticed that kids on the playground make up rules for games every day.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, totally.

ZAN: So why would the making up of rules for math not - why would that be foreign and scary?

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

ZAN: It shouldn't be.

Ms. McKELLAR: I agree.

ZAN: It should be like a playground game.

FLATOW: But we're seeing more and more girls going into math and science now. I mean, you know, if you look at sciences, you see that in the science contest winners, whatever, they're all girls at the top of these lists. They're getting interested.

Ms. McKELLAR: They're getting there. We're getting there.

FLATOW: Thanks, Zan. 1-800-989-8255, talking with Danica McKellar, author of "Hot X: Algebra Exposed," and if you want to, want an interesting way, if you've got some girls, some kids, some teachers, you want to teach them algebra, this is the third part in - what was the hardest part? Algebra is a hard subject.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. Yeah. No, this is definitely the hardest book to write, the most time-consuming, because there's so much to cover.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Algebra is a big topic, and I wanted to make sure that among all the fun, friendly way that I was describing things and relating things, I wanted to make sure that anybody taking algebra, whether you're 13 to 15 years old or you're an adult, reads this book and you're getting A's. You just get it. It's solid. Nobody's going to give you a problem that's too hard because you've already done it and...

FLATOW: There you go. Kristen(ph) in - is it Camas, Washington?

KRISTEN (Caller): Yeah, that's right.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

KRISTEN: Hi. Listen, first of all, thank you, Danica. I have a 13-year-old daughter - about to be 14 - who absolutely loves your book.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yay.

KRISTEN: And we're going to be beginning this one as well.

Ms. McKELLAR: Great.

KRISTEN: But I did hear you say earlier, and I've heard you say it before, math is hard. And I took algebra in the sixth grade. I had, you know, an aptitude for math. I know there are thousands of girls who do. We used to joke about Barbie, that math is hard.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, I remember that.

KRISTEN: I think we need to stop telling girls that math is hard because there are plenty of girls who get it, who are great at it. I went on to get a degree in engineering, had a Master's degree.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yep.

KRISTEN: You know what? Math isn't that hard.

Ms. McKELLAR: You know what? Math is hard and you're just kick-ass, and that's why you can do it. And believe me, I am not saying math is hard for girls. That is not what I'm saying. Math is a challenging subject for just about everyone, except for some brilliant people like you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: But you know what? The other thing is...

KRISTEN: Well, like I said - I'm an anomaly, you know, in the female community.

Ms. McKELLAR: Not at all.

KRISTEN: And we do tend to - we - it just - that seems to be presented to girls - math is hard - more than to boys.

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, that's - you're right that a lot of teachers will tell girls that math is going to be too hard for them. And what I - one of my main messages is that tackling things that are hard, that are thought of as hard or challenging, is actually one of the most important things to do because then you have overcome a challenge.

If math were easy for everyone, then it wouldn't be a skill building tool. And as it is, these books show girls than when you tackle something that has been hard for you and you overcome that, you are now stronger. You've got more self-confidence. You've got more internal fortitude, and that's going to follow you in every part of your life.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. Good luck to you, Kristen.

KRISTEN: Thanks.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We have a tweet that came in from StillMorningAir, who says: Would these books be good for my 49-year-old mother...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: Sure.

FLATOW: ...who wants to go back to school but is scared of math?

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, absolutely. I would definitely start with the first book, "Math Doesn't Suck." And then "Kiss My Math," and then "Hot X: Algebra Exposed." They really build on each other. And I've gotten so many emails from adults saying, I can't believe it, I never thought I could go back and study math, and you're books have given me the confidence to do that and now I get it. And it's been wonderful.

FLATOW: And so where do you go from algebra? Are we moving into calculus?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Where do you go from algebra?

Ms. McKELLAR: I guess geometry will probably be next.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) geometry. That was my favorite subject.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah? I mean, I don't know how far up I'll go. After that, it would be Algebra II, I suppose.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: And although there is some Algebra II in this book.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. I mean, keep going.

FLATOW: Talking with Danica McKellar, author of "Hot X: Algebra Exposed" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow, enjoying all of these books that you write.

Let's see if we can get a call or two in here from some more listeners. Let's go to Richard in San Antone. Hi, Rich.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment that - I just finished reading the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson. And the heroine, Lisbeth Salander, she developed an interest in mathematics, and it becomes kind of her hobby and along with all the other talents that she has she spends a good deal of her time studying mathematics and solving - I think it's called the Ferma(ph) solution.

FLATOW: Fermat's equation. Yeah.

RICHARD: And towards the end of the book, the second book, "The Girl Who Plays with Fire," it kind of implies that she solves the problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's pretty good.

RICHARD: I just called to make that comment.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. But it's interesting, the point you're making, Richard, that the heroine is a math geek in the book.

Ms. McKELLAR: Why not? Why not?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: I mean, and we're seeing - as you were saying, you were - you know, you were on "The Big Bang Theory."

Ms. McKELLAR: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: We are seeing, I think, science and math bubbling up from the population now. Instead of trying - people having to convince people in popular culture to talk about these topics...

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

FLATOW: ...they are now realizing there's a lot of interest down there.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, yeah. Well, geek chic, is that what they say?

FLATOW: Geek - yeah, and...

Ms. McKELLAR: But one thing you have to be careful, though, is that we make sure that we're not reinforcing stereotypes along the way.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Because let's face it. "Big Bang Theory" is a really fun show, but it does reinforce stereotypes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: It's (unintelligible) to watch.

FLATOW: Well, you know, and your books are very popular.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

FLATOW: They're on the New York Times best-seller list, and that shows that there are girls out there who are willing to read them.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, yeah. Oh, no. And the response has been just absolutely amazing. It's fulfilled my wildest dreams. I remember when I first wrote "Math Doesn't Suck," I didn't know if it was going to do well or not. I remember thinking, you know, if it just helps a few girls feel more confident in math I'd be so happy. And then it's like the New York Times Best-Seller list and everything is flooding in and just countless girls. I've been able to reach countless girls. It's the best feeling. And as much fun as acting is...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: ...this feels like what I was put on this planet to do.

FLATOW: And we talked about this last time.

Ms. McKELLAR: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Maybe this is, you know, the career path for you instead of just acting. Have another avocation.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. This - I mean, Hollywood's great, but this is way more fulfilling.

FLATOW: And besides, you're with - you're pregnant, right?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes, yes.

FLATOW: And when is the baby due?

Ms. McKELLAR: In mid-September.

FLATOW: Mid - wow. (Unintelligible)

Ms. McKELLAR: Coming up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You'll have plenty of time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

FLATOW: ...to write another math book, right?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, I think so.

FLATOW: I don't know. You know, having a kid - I have three of them, so having a kid could take a lot of time.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: But I'm sure you'll find time to work in another math book when it's...

Ms. McKELLAR: I'll figure it out as I go along. That's the plan.

FLATOW: And it might be Algebra II. I want to see you do one on calculus.

Ms. McKELLAR: Calculus?

FLATOW: One of my favorite topics, but one of my hardest topics to get through, you know? And - but when I did learn it, I really enjoyed it.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: And I understood why it was around and...

Ms. McKELLAR: I love infinity, almost anything that has to do with infinity. And calculus and pre-calculus, limits, you know, when I first studied limits.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Wow. What a cool topic.

FLATOW: Now, you come out with a book for girls on calculus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: There used to be a book called "Hurricane Calculus," to try -it's out of print - tried to explain calculus in simple terms. It was good. There's not, I don't think, a great book on calculus for kids.

Ms. McKELLAR: Okay. Well, you know...

FLATOW: All right.

Ms. McKELLAR: ...if I keep going in order, it may take a few years to get to calculus.

FLATOW: There's no rush.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: This is Danica McKellar who's with us. Thank you for taking time to be with us and good luck on your upcoming birth...

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...hopefully, in a month from now.

Ms. McKELLAR: I know.

FLATOW: Danica McKellar, author of "Hot X: Algebra Exposed," great read as always. And I highly recommend it. If you've got some girls in the family, if you're a teacher and you want to have some other way of explaining math in a different way to your kids, great read. Thanks again, Danica.

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you.

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