Math for girly girls

After playing Winnie in “The Wonder Years,” earning a math degree summa cum laude from UCLA, co-authoring a math proof, working as a substitute teacher and doing voice work for video games, Danica McKellar has written a middle-school math book for girls in a teen magazine style. It’s called Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. Wired reports:

Each chapter includes clear explanations that make manipulating numbers sound easy. “A reciprocal of a fraction is found by flipping it upside down. If you want the reciprocal of a mixed number or a whole number, just convert it to an improper fraction, and then flip it!” or “Going back and forth between percents and decimals is very easy. All you need to do is take away the % sign, then move the decimal point two places — that’s it!”

The book includes horoscopes, testimonials, cute doodles and quotes from girls. Word problems are brought to life with descriptions of lipstick, beads, cookies and similarly girly examples that might make the feminist in some women cringe.

McKellar believes girls turn off to math in middle school. If they believe math is a girl thing — and know what to do with fractions — they’re more likely to stick with math in high school and college.

Wired asked McKellar why she included so many references to cookies, clothing and cosmetics.

McKellar: What do you think? If I’m teaching girls that do love to make cookies and do love fashion — that they can use math as a part of that — you think that’s me saying, come on girls you belong in the kitchen, you belong shopping? Or, do you think it’s me showing them how math is part of all their life, even the part they thought it had nothing to do with?

In the introduction and other places in the book, I reinforce the idea it’s OK to be girly. It’s fun to be girly and being smart is part of who you want to be. Picture yourself clicking down Wall Street in your heels with your designer bag, and you’re going to need a really great job to support that shopping habit of yours, aren’t you? Well, yes.

Girls may end up using their math to cut a cookie recipe by three-fourths or manage a Wall Street portfolio, McKellar says. Or both.

As I understand it, the book doesn’t claim that girls’ math is different from unisex math — just that it’s doable by girly girls. It’s sort of a Legally Blonde for fractions.

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  1. What a great idea!

    We have way too many kids turn off to math in middle school, and when I get them in high school, they believe they can’t do it and will never be able to do it. Hammering the middle school concepts will make them much stronger Algebra students and allow them the opportunity to go as far as they can in math. I see so many kids who have dreams of becoming doctors, veterinarians, and engineers, and I know their math skills will probably hold them back from pursuing their dreams. If this book helps one of those kids be successful in high school math, it is worth every penny.

  2. What evidence is there that girls actually are turned off by math?

  3. There’s no doubt that when it comes to interest in mathematics, we lose kids in middle school. In international comparisons the U.S. looks fine in grade 3 or 5 results but by grade 8 we don’t match up no matter how you try to spin the dismal data.

    Middle school mathematics curricula and modern philosophies in education are to blame as, for the most part, a one-size fits all approach is applied in many schools. At best, the top handful of students are allowed to take algebra classes early, but even this option is controversial.

    I teach several sections of remedial algebra classes each semester at my two-year college and so many of these students have such a negative attitude about math and algebra. As community colleges tend to be disproportionately female to begin with, my classes are often a female majority of 2-1 and usually the female students have the greatest antipathy for math. I suspect that if I were to get this book I’d be able to use it just as much with my 18-19 year old students (or even my 30-40 year old non-traditional students), so I guess I need to be open minded to checking it out.

  4. While McKellar wants everyone to love math she herself did not find the field attractive enough to stay in it and left it. Now she comes back and is claiming that what kids need are “just flip it” explanations. What turned me off from math wasn’t that I lacked skills or that my teachers were incompetent (they had math degrees too), but that all math was to me was a series of “just flip it rules” with uninspiring mechanical exercises.

  5. What are you talking about? McKellar loved math enough to major in it, and she co-authored/founded a new math theorem. Just because you don’t dedicate your life to becoming a mathematician doesn’t mean you don’t find it attractive or that you don’t love it enough.

  6. SuperSub says:

    Through my experience as a student and a teacher, there seems to be two parts to teaching math – the mechanics and the theory. Both are necessary for mastery, but someone can get away with just the mechanics for just practicality.
    If the book succeeds at doing either or both, then I’m all for it.

  7. I think that in general, math courses don’t put enough emphasis on applications. The ones that are used often seem very contrived; I suspect this is partly because the people writing the textbooks have limited exposure to real-world math.

    Yet 90% of people will learn something more readily if they are given some idea of what it can be used for. So, bring on the applications, whether they are fashion, cookie-baking, investment analysis, or artillery fire control.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Would this work with “delicate” boys?

  9. JJ,

    Theorems are “co-authored”, articles in journals can be co-authored. The professor writes a paper and she’s allowed to put her name on it. I stand by my original assertion that if you love a field you stay in it.

  10. Correction: Theorems are NOT co-authored.

  11. Cal, I had the same question. I’m not convinced this is a gender issue. I know plenty of math and science challenged males, although they don’t seem to admit it quite so readily. Diane Ravitch has an article challenging the claim that girls aren’t as prepared as boys: Girls are Beneficiaries of Gender Gap.

    This 1998 NSF report says “High school females are now more likely
    than males to have taken geometry and algebra 2, and about
    as likely to have completed calculus.”

  12. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Does anyone get talked into being a techie? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I was born to be a techie, so I don’t know.

  13. McKellar co-authored a paper with Brandy Winn and Prof. L. Chayes titled “Percolation and Gibbs States Multiplicity for Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller Models in Z2.” It’s referred to as the “Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem.”

    My first mother-in-law was a biomedical researcher and my current husband is a “consulting professor” in engineering who used to be a full-time professor. It’s my impression that professors tend to put their names on papers written by their grad students; they’re unlikely to let undergrads put their names on the prof’s paper unless the students have contributed significantly.

  14. Tom West says:

    I stand by my original assertion that if you love a field you stay in it.

    So much for the renaissance man (or in this case, woman) :-).

  15. I read an article about the paper in question, and my recollection was that the professor said that the students had done the work with some direction from him or her. I also looked at the paper, and don’t recall being stunned by it, but I do remember feeling that it was decent work, and impressive for undergraduates.

    Being a mathematician is a much better job that it was even 30 years ago, but doing mathematical research doesn’t pay as well as getting a recurring role on The West Wing. You can certainly make a lot of money using mathematical sophistication by running a hedge fund or coming up with exotic financial instruments (there is a well known mathematician that did the former, and friends of mine from grad school have done the latter), but it’s not “doing mathematics”. I know several people that love golf, and play quite often, but I don’t know anyone that tries to make a living at it. I do know quite a few professional mathematicians, and I’m not sure how many of them would continue in that line of work if they could make 5 or 10 times as much money doing something else that they enjoyed.

    Finally, one reason that real applications of mathematics don’t make it into elementary textbooks is that real applications of mathematics always (in my experience, at least) require the use of a lot of mathematics. I’ve worked on quite a few problems in my career, and every one of them required that I invent something non-trivial.


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    The cover has a huge pink title, and looks like a typical issue of Sassy magazine for teenage girls, and is directed at middle school girls. Why that age? Because Miss Mckellar thinks that if you catch them young enough, they’ll keep their interest la…