FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:
Up next, math books get a makeover. You may remember my next guest from her acting roles on "The Wonder Years." Winnie Cooper may ring a bell or "The West Wing." But for thousands of girls today, she's the writer and personality behind a bestselling series of books that aim to teach girls about math. First, there was "Math Doesn't Suck," then "Hot X: Algebra Revealed," and now we're onto geometry.
Actress and author Danica McKellar's latest book is called "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape," and she joins me here in our New York studio. And I should also mention that Danica is on the board of the Science Friday Initiative. Thanks for coming in today.
DANICA MCKELLAR: Oh, thank you for having me.
LICHTMAN: Welcome back.
LICHTMAN: So the title of this book, "Girls Get Curves," is pretty sassy for a math book.
MCKELLAR: Yeah. Actually, you missed one other title: "Kiss My Math."
LICHTMAN: Oh. So they have a sassy - the whole history of sass.
MCKELLAR: They tend to be sassy. Well, kind of the point of the books is to present math in a way that's different from what we usually see. Math can be dry and boring when taught in certain ways, and it can also be very interesting.
And so I teach math in the context of things that preteens and teenage girls are already thinking about, like shopping and makeup and pizza and puppies and - you know, I'm a big believer of the more education feels like kindergarten, the more you retain. So why not teach math...
LICHTMAN: Make it fun.
MCKELLAR: Yeah. Math is a language. You can talk about anything in the language of math. You can talk about boring things. You can talk about fun things.
LICHTMAN: Do you feel like your books have a larger mission beyond just teaching girls the subject at hand?
MCKELLAR: Absolutely. I would love to inspire the next generation of mathematicians and scientists, but my main goal is to give girls the confidence that comes from feeling smart and the confidence that comes from knowing that they can handle challenges.
So whether it be a difficult math problem or something else, they can say, wow, I'm not sure if I can do that, and then they work at it, they persevere and they overcome it. And now they've taught themselves that they are stronger and smarter than they thought they were.
When I was in the seventh grade, I used to come home literally and cry because I was afraid of my math homework. I know how painful and frustrating math can be. And then, midway through that year, a teacher came in who completely changed my perspective on math. She made math fun and friendly. She put a friendly face on it.
And that's when I realized, for the first time, that math is all about the way it's taught, all the way - it's all about the way it's translated, and the way you present math can make all the difference to girls and boys.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think that the thing that really strikes me about your books is that they are really friendly. You know, (unintelligible).
MCKELLAR: Yeah. It's like I'm sitting down. Hey, look, I know how you're feeling. I remember that, but here's how it works. It's not so big a deal. And I'm going to teach it to you using pizzas or bird seed - (unintelligible) bird seed and little birds. All sorts of crazy, random things.
And, of course, I stick in other stuff along the lines of giving girls confidence in life. I have tons of advice about stress relief and self-esteem boosting and - I mean, I remember those years, those teenage years. They are full of angst and confusion, and you've got hormones rushing through your body. I lived that era twice. I lived it in real life and I lived it on television. And I kept a journal.
LICHTMAN: Yeah, double the punishment.
MCKELLAR: Yeah, exactly, double or triple. I wrote in a journal. I wrote everything, and I refer to the journals often when I'm writing my books.
LICHTMAN: You still have them.
MCKELLAR: Oh, yes, yes.
LICHTMAN: Oh, man. I don't want to go back and look at my journal.
MCKELLAR: It is - it's hard. It's like, oh, my gosh, the feeling of that overwhelming angst, oh, is he going to call, you know?
LICHTMAN: Well, we are going to talk a lot more about this after the break. I'm talking with Danica McKellar about her latest book on geometry, so stay with us. And if you have questions, call us: 1-800-989-TALK, 1-800-989-TALK. I'm Flora Lichtman, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, and I'm Flora Lichtman talking with Danica McKellar. And if you have a question for Danica McKellar, now is your chance. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, 1-800-989-8255. So how did you like geometry? I mean, you've done algebra and pre-algebra. What - was there something - did you like it? Was it different?
MCKELLAR: Yeah, it was really fun writing this book. It's more visual naturally, so there are a lot of more diagrams. And in a lot of the diagrams, I'll actually pick letters. I chose letters to spell out words. I don't really talk about it. Somebody happens to notice.
MCKELLAR: So there's a lot - just a lot of other things you can do with geometry.
LICHTMAN: You can get a flavor of the book on our website at sciencefriday.com. We've got an excerpt up. I think sciencefriday.com/curves is the shortened version.
MCKELLAR: Oh, nice.
LICHTMAN: So, you know, the interesting thing about this book is that you take on - as you said before the break, you sort of take on girl life generally, and I wanted to ask you, why did you - why do you go that far? In other words, you know, why combine things like body image with geometry?
MCKELLAR: I write - there's four books now that I've written, starting with "Math Doesn't Suck" for middle-schoolers. I'm writing books that I wish that I had. You know, as a teenage girl, you tend to be obsessed with things that are pretty superficial, whether it be, like, how you look or, you know, how popular you are. And so I really wanted to address those things. I used to love looking at teen magazines at that age. And let's face it, even as young women, there's something sort of, like, seductive about these women's magazines that are just full of fluff. And so I thought, well, you know, let's combine all that.
Let's make this a really fun math book so it's not so mathy(ph). So we really addressed all the stuff that girls were thinking about. And my thinking is, you know, the girls who may be interested in math but don't have long attention span for it, they're flipping through the book, they're doing the exercise and then they say, oh, there's a body image quiz. Let me see that. Let me take that quiz. Let me see how I do on it.
And then there'll be a little section about how to outsmart advertisements, you know, like when something says 30 percent more than our competition. You're like, well, OK, how much does the competition's product cost? You know, like, be smarter than the advertisements you're looking at. There are tons of random things in there to help girls feel smart and improve their smarts and improve their savviness in the world.
LICHTMAN: You know, a big problem, I think, for girls today is that they see these magazines and, you know, one of the excerpts in your book that I really love was like, do you want to look like a magazine model? Get a friend to take a picture of you and then get it airbrushed.
MCKELLAR: Right. That's right.
LICHTMAN: Because no one really looks like that, right?
LICHTMAN: So how do you convince girls that it doesn't really matter, you know, that these sort of superficial things don't matter?
MCKELLAR: Well, here's the thing: I don't try to tell them that it doesn't - that they don't matter. They matter on some level. When you walk into a job, your potential boss is going to look you up and down, and in 20 seconds, judge whether or not you're the kind of person who takes care of herself. Do you know how to present yourself to the, you know, to the future clients of that business? And so, yes, appearance is important. But it's just the decoration. It's just the icing on a cake. It's not the stuff that's going to make you happy.
So that's why that stuff is acknowledged in the book. And I even have tips about posture, how if you have good posture - I forget what page it's on - it changes your outfit. It changes how the outfit looks on you. And that is connected to your confidence, in the way you present yourself in the world. So that stuff is important but it's only one element. The bigger element in terms of you becoming a fabulous young woman someday is having that confidence that comes from feeling smart and tackling things like math.
LICHTMAN: Well, do you worry that - for girls who don't think too much about this or who struggle with body image or weight, do you worry that they - how they'll react to this or how this book affects them?
MCKELLAR: I think it's positive on all levels. I really emphasize balance in the book. I have ideas for healthy snacks. You know, if it is about your body image, it's about balance. You don't want to become obsessed with it. You don't want to try to become super skinny. You also don't want to make a bunch of excuses for being 300 pounds. Let's be healthy. Let's give ourselves some right exercise and healthy food because, you know, your mind and your body work better when you treat it well.
LICHTMAN: Did you do - did you have to do research for this book? In other words, do you have like secret agents in the field of high school who are giving you intel?
MCKELLAR: I have people who help me gather quotes. I've got teachers around the country who gathers quotes from students. I always send out surveys and - so you'll see a lot of quotes from kids throughout the books, and that's where they come from. Yeah, tons of research. I talk to teachers, tons of teachers, asking them what it's like in the classroom, what did their kids struggle with the most in this particular subject in this day and age. And yeah, no, there's a long period before I actually start writing.
LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. How about Edwin in (unintelligible) New Jersey? Do you have a question?
EDWIN: Yeah. Hi, Danica. I'm a huge fan.
MCKELLAR: Thank you.
EDWIN: I was just wondering, like, what's your stand on education (unintelligible) and, like, where do you see it going, especially because, you know, you talk a lot about how math and science are, you know, this could be taught in, like, a dreadful manner. Like where do you see - like what kind of methods can be done to make education reform happen in a way to make science and math more interesting for students?
MCKELLAR: Well, I know right now a lot of teachers are in a very difficult position to make their subjects more interesting because they're given such limited time and such a strict focus on here's what you have to teach. And there are, you know, there are lot of standardized tests now that they're teaching for. And it's very difficult. So for me, I've never tried to get involved in the political side of the educational system. For me, the reform comes from the outside in, from these books, the supplemental help. And there's a lot of resources online. There's my books. There's other ways of making it more interesting. And hopefully it's an opportunity for parents to get involved with their kids' education as well.
LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling, Edwin. So part of your books are about teaching girls to sort of figure out who they are, which is, you know, I remember that confusing time.
LICHTMAN: Did you have a moment with math, I mean, you know, you'd - you are so famous for your work on "The Wonder Years." What happened with - how did you switch over into math and was that sort of an a-ha moment for you?
MCKELLAR: Absolutely. No, because - we all know that ex-child actors tend to have some struggles with self-image. And I definitely had the question in my mind once "The Wonder Years" ended - who am I now? What is my value? And right at that moment it was wrapped up a lot in the superficiality of Hollywood and being famous.
And I came to UCLA within a few months of the show ending and became - like took a math class. I just - I was actually worried about taking a math class. I didn't know that I'd be able to handle it. And here I scored a five on an AP Calculus BC exam. Talk about perceptions. I didn't see myself as being good at math even though I was. And that's one of the things I'm tackling in the books. But when I did jump into that math class, despite my concerns and my fears, I did really well and I was hooked.
I was like, wow, I suddenly felt valued and important for something that had nothing to do with Hollywood. It had everything to do with something that I was building from the inside out, and you don't have to have been on television to struggle as a teenage girl with your self-image. And that's why I know that math is an amazing tool for all girls to find themselves, to find something that they value themselves for.
LICHTMAN: Hmm. We're just about out of time but I wanted to ask you, I heard you're doing an interview - I think it was with Jimmy Kimmel - and you talked about what it was like in college when you were entrenched in that math work. And you'd wake up in the middle of the night and...
LICHTMAN: ...do problems on the blackboard. Do you miss that kind of intensity of math doing?
MCKELLAR: Yeah. Absolutely. And I love math and I still do(ph). And I miss all the highfalutin ideas and conceptual things that used to be buzzing around in my head. But writing these math books is an amazing combination of my entertainment world with my love of math. And what's interesting is I always sit down and go, OK, how am I going to make this dry topic really interesting? What's the cool, fun thing that I'm going to attach to it to really help teach it? And I'll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for that. So that stuff still happens.
LICHTMAN: That's nice to hear. Thanks, Danica, for coming in today. Appreciate it.
MCKELLAR: My pleasure.
LICHTMAN: Danica McKellar is an actress and a math education advocate. Her newest book is called "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.