Back in the late 80s, there wasn’t a young teen boy immune to the charms of Danica McKellar, the raven-haired young beauty who starred in “The Wonder Years” as Winnie, the main love interest of Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage. But it’s been almost 20 years since that show ended in 1993, and she’s gone on to a whole new kind of fame. Still as gorgeous as ever, she’s better known today for something that will last long after her looks are gone — her incredible mind.
The brunette’s prowess with mathematics is bringing her even more renown as she shows young people — particularly girls — that being a geek can be cool, too.
While McKellar’s years as a child star are far behind her, she’s using her star power to propel her genius-level math skills into a second career as a New York Times bestselling author of a wildly popular series of math books for young adults. Who would have thought that knowing how to do your math homework could be so cool?
Avoiding the Child Star Pitfalls
Child stars often have a hard time transitioning to adulthood — we’ve all heard the cautionary tales about those once-cute kids who failed to move past their youthful fame and success. Some drop into oblivion or even worse, while others weather the transition well.
In 1995, McKellar enrolled at UCLA, with every intention of studying film, as would be expected of someone with a show business background. However, she quickly fell in love with math and the challenges that came with it, and she was hooked — not on drugs, like so many other former child stars, but on the high that comes when you’ve figured out a difficult, puzzling problem.
She took to math with such zeal that she’s likely the only Hollywood star with a math theorem named after her. While at UCLA, she took a complicated complex analysis course. Her professor, Lincoln Chayes, invited her and another student, Brandy Winn, to tackle original research, marking the first time he gave a research project to undergraduates.
The two came up with a theorem, named Chayes-McKellar-Winn, to prove a property that indicates when a mathematical field will line up in a certain direction. Under Chayes’ tutoring, the two students spent months working on the proof. Their completed paper appeared in a British physics journal, and she presented the findings at a statistical mechanics conference at Rutgers.
She pondered graduate school in math. She decided to go back to show business, but her fascination with math translated into a whole new equation: Fame + A Great Idea = Getting Your Message Out There.
Math Doesn’t Suck, and Other Best Sellers
Beyond her talent and ability, McKellar’s love of mathematics has formed the basis of a larger mission when it comes to math and girls. She understands that people have difficulty with mathematics, and it’s often something specific to girls, as she experienced.
“After I became a math major, I was amazed to hear how deeply felt so many people’s insecurity about math was,” she told Salon in an interview. “Math is closely tied to self-esteem on some level. And middle school is the time when girls decide that they’re not good at math — whether or not their grades are dropping.”
But girls do fine with math through high school, she added, even though they are likely to say they don’t understand, while boys of the same age report they do well with their math work — a puzzling situation.
She attacked the problem by expanding her love of math to get other girls to like math, too. However, her wildly successful formula came under criticism from educators who don’t like her message: solving math equations will you be popular and even, yes, sexy.
That formula has led to a series of books that all reached the New York Times bestseller list, with titles such as “Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math,” “Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape” and “Hot X: Algebra Exposed.” The book cover looks like a flashy magazine teens would read, and the cheeky titles and fluffy packaging helped a whole generation of girls to decide, “Hey, we love math too.”
The books target tweens and up, and aside from the somewhat racy titles and colorful covers, she has a message for girls — it’s one thing to be a cool girl, but it’s even better to be smart.
Just one excerpt from “Girls Get Curves” shows how she equates being smart with being strong, and how math helps with that.
“Just by doing geometry — especially proofs — we train our brains to think more logically, to avoid making assumptions, and to create airtight arguments,” she writes. “Geometry will not only help you to be a better communicator, but also a more savvy citizen — one who is less prone to being lied to or taken advantage of. And that’s always nice.”
And while there’s no statistics out yet about whether her books are improving math scores, teachers and students alike laud her for her fresh, interesting take on an often difficult subject and are pleased she is able to make math relevant to girls’ lives and interests.
She added she’s trying to show girls that they don’t have to make the choice between being nerdy or beautiful — they can be both.
“When they’re getting the message that you have to choose — when they really believe that they have to be the smart nerd girl or they can be fun and sexy but kind of slutty — if that’s what they think their choices are, then that’s a very dangerous message to be giving them,” she told Salon in the interview. “Because what looks like more fun? It looks like more fun to be fun and sexy. Let’s remove that idea that you have to choose. You can be fun and flirty and really, really smart, because you know you don’t have to dumb yourself down.”
Finding Ways to Equate Her Passions
McKellar didn’t initially set out to be a mathematics role model, or write those entertaining math books for girls, and she still acts, although she said her acting takes up about 25 percent of her time now, according to the Washington Post, while her math and books take up the rest.
Her passion for promoting girls’ math education began in earnest in 2000, when she was invited to speak before Congress about the importance of women in math and science. Since then she’s made it a priority to promote math education.
And the math-minded actress is branching out beyond books to get her message out. Through her website, she regularly answers questions and when she has time, even gives some tutoring sessions. The books are sold through her website, but as best sellers, they can be purchased through any major bookseller as well.
McKellar, though, noted to Salon that her main interest isn’t in just selling books, but in changing girls’ attitudes about math and themselves.
“[Math has] a stigma attached to it,” she said in the interview. “In the movies and on TV, math is always portrayed as something impossible or distasteful, or something that if you’re really good at it, you must actually be insane. It can’t ever be a normal, fun, social person — by the way, a female — who also happens to be kick-ass at math. Why not?”
And now that her books are available electronically as well as in print, they lend themselves well to a growing trend of girls becoming more active in science, math and technology.
Earlier this year, for example, three Stanford students created the Roominate dollhouse, to spark the minds of the next generations by giving girls’ time-honored activity a technological upgrade.
But McKellar doesn’t want girls to just play around with tech and math, she wants them to make it part of their everyday lives.
“Geometry does more than help us to master the physical world,” she told Today Books. “Doing geometry — especially proofs — trains the logic center in our brains. And logic helps us stay clear and focused, which is helpful in all parts of life.
McKellar’s books have a higher purpose. She added that it’s very important to promote math education, especially to girls and young women, who are often made to feel that being smart in math is only for the boys in their classes and comes at the cost of their femininity.
As technology continues to grow, girls who aren’t encouraged to strengthen their math and technology skills risk being left in a critical skill set needed to survive in a rapidly changing world. McKellar believes this to the core of her being and intends to harness this understanding, tech tools and her love of mathematics to make sure other girls do, too. ♦