Danica McKellar Makes Math Vacation-Friendly Students are counting down the days until the start of summer vacation, but is there a way to convince kids to do math over the break? Ira Flatow talks with McKellar, Wonder Years actress turned math book author, about sharpening students' math skills.
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Danica McKellar Makes Math Vacation-Friendly

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Danica McKellar Makes Math Vacation-Friendly

Danica McKellar Makes Math Vacation-Friendly

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, and joining me now is Danica McKellar. You may know her as an actress, but she's got a whole new life now, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANICA McKELLAR (Author, "Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail"): Yes.

FLATOW: She's an author of two books, including "Math Doesn't Suck" and "Kiss My Math," and maybe there's another one on the way, Danica. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. McKELLAR: There is another one, (unintelligible) sound like babies. Yes, well thank you for having me. I'm thrilled to be here again.

FLATOW: You're welcome. No, you know - I feel like we've helped you resurrect a whole new career as a spokesperson for math and girls.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is so important to give math some better PR because, boy, does it get a lot of bad PR out there.

FLATOW: I'll say, if you want to talk to Danica, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I have both your books, "Kiss My Math" and "Math Doesn't Suck" here, and I see it says national bestseller on it now.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes, in fact New York Times bestseller.


Ms. McKELLAR: It's so exciting. When "Math Doesn't Suck" first came out a year and a half ago, it was not considered by the New York Times because they said it was a textbook. So it didn't fit into one of their categories, and happily, my publishers fought them on it and said wait a minute, how many textbooks do you know that look like Teen magazines? Does this look like a textbook to you? This is a young, you know, a young-adult, kids book. And they finally said all right, fine, and sure enough, as soon as "Kiss My Math" came out in August, they both shot up on the list.

FLATOW: Are you working on another one now?

Ms. McKELLAR: I am.

FLATOW: Can you share some of that secret with us, what it's about?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, I don't have a title yet, but it is about algebra.

FLATOW: Algebra.

Ms. McKELLAR: So "Math Doesn't Suck" is for ages 10 to 12, and that's sort of pre-pre-algebra. It's fractions, proportions. "Kiss My Math" is pre-algebra, negative numbers, solving for X, exponents, things like that. And now I'm working on algebra. So it's kind of a trilogy in a way.

FLATOW: That's right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, and I just started writing it. It'll come out in the fall of 2010, so…


Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, or the summer of 2010 maybe.

FLATOW: Well, that means we have at least one more visit from you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: That's right.

FLATOW: …in store. Is there something that kids and parents - what parents can do over the summer with their kids so that they stay interested in math, where they see it around them wherever they're living?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. And I suggest to parents that they start young. You know, when kids are just discovering the world around them, five, six, seven years old, show them math in real life. Just point it out when you go shopping. You notice that there's a unit price, and how many pounds are you getting, and then how much is the final price. Just noticing it, pointing it out.

Once kids are actually in school really learning math and learning fractions and things, of course I suggest helping them because you need support. Math is a foreign language, and it can be very scary. I recommend my books, you know, for those ages, but also, you know, there are a lot of great Web sites out there, and just show them how math is used.

Math is actually a part of our life. In fact, our economy is showing us right now how important math…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: …and numbers really are and how they have real-life consequences.

FLATOW: That's right. Since you were here last, we've had a Wall Street meltdown.

Ms. McKELLAR: I know.

FLATOW: People were not paying attention to the math. Obviously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: Well the thing is, when you start off in middle school, and math is a foreign language, and it is scary, and you don't have the right support materials, and you avoid numbers at all costs, which a lot of people I know are like that. You know, they avoid it in college.

I have a friend in college who wanted to be a doctor. She wanted to deliver babies. She figured out she had to take calculus to do that, and she got scared and dropped out. People avoid numbers. She didn't get to fulfill her dreams.

And when you avoid numbers, as an adult you'll probably continue to avoid numbers, and then what happens? You get credit card statements you don't necessarily pay attention to because you're avoiding them, avoiding the details of that mortgage statement, you know, or the contract that's in front of you. And those things are really important, and they have very, very real consequences.

FLATOW: How did you get this nouveau interest in math, or did you always have it since you were a kid?

Ms. McKELLAR: When I was in middle school, I was terrified of math. I had that horrible feeling of dread. I just didn't want to have anything to do with it, and it made me feel bad about myself. That's something I think people have to realize that nobody likes to do something that makes them feel bad about themselves. That's part of why it's avoided because if you don't get it, if you don't have the right teacher or the right whatever, you just freeze up, and you don't want to face that. Who does? It's very human and very normal.

So you know, that's a really important part, and for me, I got really lucky. I got some teachers in middle school…

FLATOW: They're so important, aren't they, the best teachers?

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh my goodness, they're so important. Teachers are like angels. They can be - they are the face of the subject, and if they use that well, if they become a friend, then that subject becomes friendly. If they're scary, then the subject's going to be scary. If they are, you know, if they're standoffish, then the kids aren't going to feel welcome to really learn.

FLATOW: Did you have to persuade your publishers when you started doing this that you could write a book that girls would like? I mean, did they so now, who's going to read that? Give us something about being an actress or something you know about or whatever.

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, it was after there was an article about me in the New York Times back in 2005, about how in between "The Wonder Years" and "The West Wing," I had co-authored this research paper. And I had a couple of different literary agents call me and say we think that you've got some sort of interesting combination that could be a book. We don't know what it would be, we're not sure.

Well, I had spoken in front of Congress back in 2000 about the importance of women in mathematics and the importance of giving math better PR, but it had never occurred to me to write books. But then when the agent said, you know, we think you should do this, they said: What would you want to do? Who would you want to target? And I said I know exactly who I want to target: middle-school girls. I've been researching this for years. I've been answering math questions on my Web sites for years, and I was completely primed and ready to go, and nobody could have convinced me to do any other kind of book.

FLATOW: How can you get a recurring role in numbers for you? When do you get a math show?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If Phil Nye the Science Guy can get on there…

Ms. McKELLAR: People ask me that all the time.

FLATOW: I'll bet they do.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes, I'm sure it's inevitable at some point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. 1-800-989-8255, if I can reach the buttons. They're not that easy. Let's go to Phil(ph) in New York. Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, Ira. Good afternoon, Danica.

Ms. McKELLAR: Hey.

PHIL: I've got a question, and it's very funny because everything I'm listening to - first of all, I can't tell you how much I applaud what you're doing. It is so, so important.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh thank you.

PHIL: For both boys as well, but in particular girls, I think. So bravo to you. My question is this. My wife is a returning-back-to-college 40-something woman, and she's facing for her masters degree completion having - or pardon me, her calculus course, and she's really terrified. And my thinking is, without knowing actually, that in this day and age, there must be some means of her going to preparatory classes that are available outside the college tuition and so forth. Can you make any recommendations, or do you have a course of action that you think might be helpful for a 40-something woman returning back to school?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, how much review does she need? I mean, is she ready to jump into calculus, or does she need a review in algebra?

PHIL: No, she's got all that underneath her. She's you know, gone up the regular curriculum, has done her algebra, done everything and done extremely well. She's gotten good grades.

Ms. McKELLAR: I would say go online.

FLATOW: There's a great book called "Hurricane Calculus" out there. I mean, I used to have trouble with calculus in college, too. I wish I had this book.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh really? I'll have to check it out.

FLATOW: Get this for your wife called - we had the author on years ago, and he just, he explained it so well and so easy that, Phil, this is where I would start.

PHIL: Oh wonderful, thank you so much. It sounds like a gem. That sounds great.

FLATOW: You're welcome. With someone with a name-block like I do, for me to pull out the name "Hurricane Calculus."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: That's awesome.

FLATOW: It is awesome. But people - now that you're on, visiting, writing books, they must think you are the math authority, right? You get questions that you can't possibly answer.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, I get - sometimes people will email me questions about differential calculus, which I actually never took a course in. I mean, I did some of it, but not really.

FLATOW: You would enjoy calculus.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, well I loved - you mean differential calculus?

FLATOW: Yes, differential calculus.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, I know. I mean, I love multivariable calculus, I loved real analysis, all that stuff.

FLATOW: Don't go there. I can't talk about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: No, it's great, and you know, people have asked me, are you going to write a calculus book someday?

FLATOW: Right, that was going to be one of my questions.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, my plan - I mean, I've hit the pre-algebra. Now I'm working on algebra. I will probably keep going as long as it stays an interest. You know, I get emails from kids saying, oh you're writing an algebra book because you got me through eighth grade pre-algebra, and now I need you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: I'm like I'm writing as fast as I can.

FLATOW: I believe it. Let's go to Evan(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Evan.

EVAN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

EVAN: First, I wanted to say thanks to Danica for the books. I have daughters who are nine and 11, and both of your books are on the shelf at home, and they love them. So those are great.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yay, oh wonderful, wonderful.

EVAN: And I understand part of the motivation behind your books is getting girls interested and excited in mathematics. And I also wanted to know if you're familiar with the FIRST LEGO League?


EVAN: Well it's actually - it's kids who are using a specific robotics kit from LEGO to build robots, program them and compete in competitions nationwide.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, that's great.

EVAN: And this isn't just girls. It's for girls and boys both. It's a similar age group, and I coached a team. This was - I stepped into it by happenstance last year, and I have to tell you it was an awesome experience. And I have to tell you that the team that I had, we were called the Tree Frog Team, and it was a fifth-grade, girls' robotics team last year, and there were, you know, some discussions about what they were doing with math at school, and there was an expression of boredom. I won't tell you exactly what…

(Soundbite of laughter)

EVAN: Okay, but when they're using robots and programming them, we could spend two to three hours at a time, and they were highly motivated.

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely. It's about making it playtime as much as possible, and that's actually something I do in the actual - which your daughters probably know - in the actual teaching of the math even inside the books. Even if you don't have a robot to play with in the moment, you know, when you're learning math topics, why not talk about things like popularity and shopping and opening and, you know, unwrapping a gift and wrapping it back up again, you know, for inverse operations?

There's ways of making it feel like kindergarten. And to me, if you can make math feel like kindergarten. You know, you break that brain freeze that kids get when they look at the numbers.

FLATOW: That's great. Is this part of Dean Kamen's FIRST robots?

EVAN: Exactly. Right. The acronym stands For Inspiration of Research Science and Technology. The organization is getting - it's growing and it is - I would encourage all parents to look into it. Find a FIRST Lego League team. It's primarily for kids between the ages of, like, 9 and 14.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, great. That's the age.

EVAN: You know, a lot of things out there that's…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. Wonderful.

EVAN: It's really a great thing.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Evan. Take care.

EVAN: You bet. Thanks.

FLATOW: But 9 and 14, you say, that's the age where you got to get kids involved?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes, absolutely. That's where - that's when kids are deciding whether or not they're good at math. They're kind of deciding who they are at that age, you know, middle school. "The Wonder Years" was made about that time of life.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McKELLAR: That's - it's a very - it's a critical time when self-esteem has become an issue, you know?

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Kids go from being these little kids running around in a playground in the dirt, and now they're going, who am I? It's really important. And that's why these quizzes are so popular that I - that are in teen magazines, so I put them in the math books.

Do you pick supportive friends? Are you a mathophobe? Take this quiz and find out. Because kids are wanting to know, especially girls, who am I? And then the quiz tells them, who are you? Take this quiz and find out. You can't get enough of that.

FLATOW: Well, you know, your timing is perfect on this, because now that President Obama is in the White House, we're seeing Michelle Obama going around to schools talking to girls and boys saying, if you want to do like I am - like I did, you have - smart is good. Smart is cool.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. Smart is sexy. Uh-huh.

FLATOW: Smart is sexy.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yep. Absolutely. Sexy in every interpretation of that word.


Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely.

FLATOW: …that's your message also.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. The message is - that's why the books look more like teen magazines than math books, because I want to combine these two ideas - being smart and capable and being fabulous if you want to be.

You know, owning your own business. What do you love? Do you love shoes? Open a shoe store, you know? But numbers are going to keep that - keep those doors open. And actually to - I wanted to finish answering the question about summer, about summer activities.


Ms. McKELLAR: I think a really fun thing for kids to do, especially in today's economy, seeing how, you know, the numbers are important for businesses, is start a little business, whether it's selling lemonade or making baby clothes or doll clothes or buying things from a thrift shop and making them better and selling them, whatever it is, and keep track.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Keep track of your expenses, keep track of your profits, keep track of who's buying your materials, you know, who's buying your product. Is it men? Is it women? What's the approximate age? And so that it doesn't feel like homework, because believe me, the last thing kids want to do over the summer is math homework.

So if you want to keep the math going, don't give them homework. You know, make it fun, make it real world, and have it be about something that they're passionate about.

FLATOW: And you just disguise it, as you say, study the math by doing the business. Talking with Danica McKellar, author of "Kiss My Math" and "Math Doesn't Suck" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a - gosh, I wish we had more time. Let's go to Faith(ph) in Tulsa. Hi, Faith.

FAITH (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

FAITH: I - thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

FAITH: I just wanted to thank Danica for her book. I loved math as a kid and through middle school, was always eager and loved math. And it wasn't until high school that I actually had some teachers who were - I became intimidated because of the teachers and turned off.

I mean, I just appreciate you and this book because it has to - the teachers can be really - just a huge factor. And I just - I think I lost my love of math because of some (unintelligible).

Ms. McKELLAR: And you know, in - I'm happy, thank you so much for thanking me. And I think that one thing that happens to girls and women is that because we are trained - let's face it - we are trained from a very young age to believe that math is not for us. If we're good at it, that's great. It's some sort of bonus. But it's not like - we're sort of like a sidecar.

And because of that belief - and that's in us somewhere very deep from a very young age because society tells us that how we look is more important than what we think, et cetera, et cetera - that when women, when young women have a stumbling block in math like you did in high school, or at any age along the way, that for a lot of girls, that becomes validation of what they'd always suspected.

I'm, you know, I've been a phony this whole time, well, I was good at it but, see, now I know, see, this confirms it. I'm - this is not - I know my place is not in mathematics.


FAITH: Right. Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: And that's part of the reason why I…

FAITH: It just - yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FAITH: It makes every stumbling block just a little bit more impactful.

Ms. McKELLAR: And - right. And when guys hit stumbling blocks, it tends to be that they see it as an issue in the moment, and then they'll go on because they believe that's their place.

FAITH: Exactly.

Ms. McKELLAR: It's amazing, the psychology behind it, which is part of why I go so far with the girly stuff in my books, because I want to show them, you know what, this book is for you. This is your place. Your place is being smart and knowledgeable and good at math.

FLATOW: And what you both agree on is that - is the need to have a good mentor, a good math teacher.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. Oh yes.

FLATOW: And, Faith, you say that that - your math teacher turned you off.

FAITH: Yes. I - basically, I had three math teachers in a row, different grades, who basically the - there were some - there were a few guys in the classroom who just ruled the classroom and I wasn't - there was no room for me to ask questions or learn. I was always made fun of.


Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, that's so rough.

FAITH: And so I was completely turned off.

FLATOW: Well, it's too bad she came a few years too late for you, Faith.

FAITH: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Faith, thanks for…

FAITH: But thank you.

FLATOW: …thanks for calling. And any final - we only have about a minute left -any final thoughts about where you're headed next and what you're going to do? Can we get you another TV show? Anything in the works here?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, I don't think that I can write a book while on a TV show. But, you know, I'm open to whatever comes my way. I'm a big believer in - that the universe would direct things. I just got married in March, actually.

FLATOW: Oh, congratulations.

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you.

FLATOW: Mazeltov, as we say in New York.

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: That's terrific.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. So…

FLATOW: That's going to take some time out of your life.

Ms. McKELLAR: That took some time, planning that wedding, and then the wedding and then the honeymoon and all that.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: So, I'm a newlywed. And I'm writing the next book.

FLATOW: The algebra book.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, the algebra book. I have a movie that I did called "21 and a Wake-Up." It's on Vietnam nurses. That comes out, I think, this summer as an independent film.


Ms. McKELLAR: So I'm keeping busy.

FLATOW: Well, that's good. And we wish you the best of luck. And I don't know how we can get this higher on the best-seller list.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, and I wanted to tell people, if they have any questions about the book…


Ms. McKELLAR: …about math, anything, kissmymath.com and mathdoesntsuck.com, those emails do get forwarded to me, especially the kids' emails. Those get flagged. And I answer specific math questions when they get written there.

FLATOW: And if you're writing an algebra book, do you want to hear anything about algebra from them especially?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes, I would love to. Yes, you know what, I'm writing the book right now. Send me your requests.

FLATOW: It's - what's the address again?

Ms. McKELLAR: Kissmymath.com.

FLATOW: And there you have it. Danica, thank you.

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: I'm speaking with Danica McKellar, working on a new algebra book, author of "Kiss My Math" and "Math Doesn't Suck." Still in print, still moving up there.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot.

Ms. McKELLAR: It's going great. Thank you.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come back and talk about art and science with two artists who use science for inspiration, like Danica uses math for inspiration.

So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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