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Meet Danica McKellar Actress and Mathematician

Danica McKellar is an actress, a mathematician, and an advocate for math education. She is best known for her role as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years and Elsie Snuffin on The West Wing. Danica is a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA with a degree in mathematics. She co-authored a mathematical proof known as The Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem. The busy actress has spoken before Congress about the importance of women in mathematics.
Danica McKellar is a two-time New York Times bestselling author Danica McKellar. In 2007, Danica authored her first book to inspire young girls. Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail does an excellent job of explaining middle school math concepts by connecting them to things that really interest young girls. For example, factors and friendship bracelets, multiples and shoes, and rates and face cream. For each topic there are clear examples, explanations and summaries. There are also homework and test-taking tips, testimonials from women, and quotes from real kids and TV Stars. The teen-magazine format makes this book exciting and fun to read. She has since published two new books: Kiss My Math, a pre-algebra book and Hot X: Algebra Exposed! Danica now has a large audience of young people --boys and girls --who read her books.
Todays kids need a good role model to help them succeed in math. I think the world would be a better place there were more people like Danica McKellar. So, naturally, I was delighted to interview Danica about her book in 2007. Her personal publicist sent me a copy of the book just before it hit the shelves nationwide on August 2, 2007. Her publicist also arranged for me to interview Danica by telephone on August 15. Read the interview below to learn more!

Interview with Danica McKellar, by Gisele Glosser
GG: What inspired you to write this book?
DM: I've been interested in math education and [it's impact on] young girls since I spoke in front of Congress in 2000 on women and mathematics. What I learned in all the research I did, is that the pivotal time for girls and math is around middle school. That is when they decide if they are going to be good at math. That's when they start to become self-aware... and aware that math has a bad reputation: that it's just for nerds, and also, just for boys. There was no question in my mind about it being for middle-school girls.
GG: Did you have any help or support from colleagues or family members when you wrote your book?
DM: I had a lot of emotional support. And, when I was done writing the book, family members and friends were kind enough to proofread different sections. I think my mom read the entire book at least twice. I've gotten so much support for this book, on so many levels, from so many different people. The media, in particular, has really embraced the idea of what I am trying to do. And they've given me a lot of press. I am so grateful for that.
GG: Where did you get your incredibly creative math ideas?
DM: Thank you. A lot of them I came up when I was in school to help myself remember things. Some of them were developed as I wrote the book. For example, I'd ask myself "How can I relate prime numbers to the kinds of things I was doing in middle school?" Then I thought, aha, of course, there's patterns in a friendship bracelet! As soon as I got that idea, I wrote that part of the chapter. Some sections were harder to think of than others. I did not write the book in order to begin with. When I was first brainstorming ideas, I wrote whatever came to me first. I knew the topics I wanted to teach, but the order was based on the inspiration of the moment.
GG: What message are you sending to young girls about math?
DM: A few messages. One of them is that they are fully capable of doing math. There is no difference between boys and girls in terms of their aptitudes. You don't have to give up being girly to pursue math and to be good at math. All I'm doing is teaching math in the context of what things girls like.
GG: Do your math topics align with any math standards?
DM: I did a lot of research in terms of the standards. My book is not just one grade. I chose the topics that, from my experience, and from talking with middle-school teachers, would be most beneficial to middle-school students. Fractions, decimals, ratios, proportions, percents, some words problems and some algebra. I would say it's mainly fifth through eighth.
GG: Did you have to take time off from acting to write this book?
DM: Yes, I did. I've had the book deal since January, 2006. I took some time off from acting until June. That's when I started shooting Inspector Mom in Dallas. During the shooting I worked on the book on weekends. I also spoke to teachers about it in Dallas. After I was done with Inspector Mom in December, I worked [full-time] on the book again in January, February and March. Most of the book was written during those first few months. But taking time off from writing the book, and speaking to teachers about it, gave me some perspective and enabled me to go back and make some changes.
GG: You've gone from a child actress playing the role of a middle-school girl to an adult actress helping middle-school girls. That's quite an accomplishment! How does that make you feel?
DM: It feels great. Because I was on a show where I was a middle-school student, it made me more in touch with my middle-school life. I watched the episodes over the years and so I found them useful: it helped me relate to girls today.
GG: Do people in Hollywood or in math education notice your many talents?
DM: When I first graduated from college I got a lot of attention in Hollywood. They were both impressed and horrified, and wondered "Why math?", since I already had a good career in acting. There were plenty of star-struck teachers at UCLA. However, Dr. Lincoln Chayes, the professor I wrote the theorem with, had no television, and no pre-conceived notions of who I was.
GG: Do you plan to write more books?
DM: I don't know yet. I am having a great time with this one! Some people say I should go to an older or to a younger age group. Actually, the publishers were concerned about the length of the book, but I insisted on including the Algebra section. I really like Algebra, so maybe the next one will be about that. Only time will tell...

Summary

It was truly an honor to interview Danica about her first book and her career. I watched her as a young actress on The Wonder Years. So I am thrilled to see her as a mathematician and math-education advocate! As an author, Danica really gets into the minds of young people: She shows them math through things that really interest them using their language. With her second book, Kiss My Math, she empowers 7th to 9th graders to take on pre-algebra, using the same sassy style as she did in her first one. In Hot X: Algebra Exposed, Danica puts math-phobic students at ease, showing anyone how to become confident and totally "get" topics like square roots, polynomials, quadratic equations, word problems, and more.
 
Visit the official Danica McKellar website.
Read Danica's published proof .

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