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Math whiz

Actress writes book about other love: numbers

Actress writes book about other love: numbers

November 06, 2007|By ELINA MIR / Pulse Correspondent

You might know Danica McKellar as the actress who played Winnie in the TV show "The Wonder Years." She also had a small role in "The West Wing" in 2002-03. But did you know that McKellar is a summa cum laude graduate of University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in mathematics? Did you also know that she is the coauthor of a physics mathematical theorem?

McKellar recently wrote a book called "Math Doesn't Suck" (see review at left) which is aimed toward middle school girls who are struggling with math. A couple weeks ago, I interviewed McKellar about her book and about math.

When you were younger did you like math?

Yes. I did like math, but when I was in middle school I was struggling. I was fortunate enough to go to an all-girls school. There I had a math teacher, Mrs. Jackson, who made learning fun by using analogies. She would compare math to sausage factories. The best thing about her was that she took the pressure off.

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How has life changed since becoming a mathematician?

Since becoming a mathematician, life feels more full. I finally have the chance to be myself instead of a character on a TV show.

Who were your role models?

My mom was my biggest role model. She taught me that thinking was fun and taught me value. I also admire people like Jodie Foster - actresses who went to college. I also looked up to my math teacher, Mrs. Jackson.

As a middle school student, did you ever think you'd be where you are today?

No, I had no clue I would be where I am today. I wish I would have known. It would have made me feel better then.

What do you want your book to accomplish?

I want my book to show girls that it's sexy to be smart. I want them to know that math is for them. I think a lot of girls think math is for nerds and for boys, but not for them. Math is totally for girls. Even if a girl wants to be the most girly girl there is, she needs to know that math is a central tool ... that if you develop your intelligence, too, you don't have to choose between being a girly girl or being smart.

As a role model, what advice do you have for middle school girls who are trying to accomplish their goals?

Don't expect things to happen overnight. When a goal doesn't happen, don't give up, because goals don't happen overnight.

I loved your techniques for teaching math. How did you come up with them?

Some I came up with in school, some our other people came up with. Most of them I came up with when I was writing the book. When writing the book, I thought, "What would make this fun?" I would just sit there until I thought of something. I came up with the Greatest Crush Factor while writing the book. My goddaughter came up with the Birthday Cake method.

Who was your favorite math teacher?

Mrs. Jackson was my favorite math teacher. Mr. Metzger was my favorite teacher in high school. He used to say, "you guys worry about the math, let me worry about the grades." This allowed me to see how much beauty is in math. It let me see patterns in the problem that I was working on.

What's your favorite kind of math?

My favorite type of math is real analysis. I like proving why things work the way they do. I like to work with infinity. You can never wrap your arms around it. I also enjoy middle school math like algebra.

Why did you decide to become a mathematician?

I was attending UCLA in Los Angeles and "The Wonder Years" had just ended, and I was trying to find out who I was. I took a class to fulfill a requirement at UCLA. To my surprise, I did really well. Some of my professors didn't know I was on TV. Some of them didn't even own TVs. They said I had a gift (with mathematics). They encouraged me to continue in math.

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