It’s not a rosy picture for girls in math. As Barbie infamously framed it, girls should think that “math is hard.” While Mattel (rightly) received a lot of flack for that comment, the sad fact is that Barbie was reflecting the attitude many girls tend to take toward mathematics education: it’s difficult, it’s boring, and who needs it anyway? Surveys have shown that, while girls and boys in elementary school show similar attitudes toward mathematics, by junior high girls tend to have a negative attitude toward math, along with lower confidence in their ability to handle math problems. Of course, this also has a negative effect on getting women to enter (or stay in) science and technology concentrations in college, as all require at least some courses in mathematics. Therefore, women choose to opt out of these–in many cases, due to attitudes that began to develop during those Barbie years.

However, the news is not all bad. Studies also show that interventions can be made by teachers and by parents to retain girls’ interest in math. This can be done by encouraging and developing girls’ abilities, and helping them to overcome stereotypes of girls as “bad at math,” or that girls who are good at math are just “nerds” who will never get a date. Mathematician/author/actress Danica McKellar tackles the latter in her first book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. More after the jump…

For those of you who may remember McKellar as Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years and wondering how she came to write a math book aimed at middle school girls, allow me to fill in a few gaps. Following the television show, McKellar attended UCLA, where she graduated summa cum laude with a major in mathematics (and published proof to boot). Since graduation, McKellar has maintained an interest in math and science education for girls, and has been active in promoting this.

The book is divided up into short chapters, each of them covering one idea (factoring, mixed numbers, decimals, etc.) and typically with an underlying theme: a clothes sale, or babysitting, or jewelry, for instance. My first impulse is to bristle a bit at this (and indeed, I asked Danica about it in an interview I’ll have up tomorrow), but there are also chapters using more neutral examples–pizza or grocery shopping, for example. Despite my bristliness at some of her examples, the explanations of the math itself look pretty good to me (trying to put myself back in middle school math mode, which isn’t easy). She gives an overview of a problem, and then shows how to solve it, step-by-step–sometimes in her own handwriting. This gives the book a bit more of a personal touch, making it less of a study guide or textbook and more like borrowing your smart friend’s class notes. She also includes memory tricks, shortcuts, and alternate strategies to arrive at an answer, so different types of learners should be able to find a strategy that clicks with them.

In addition to the math, McKellar infuses the book with her own personal anecdotes–times when she found a math problem to be difficult or scary, and how she overcame the fear, or her own issues with people making assumptions about her intelligence based on her appearance (and what she did about it). She also includes other success stories of “fabulous” women who are successful in math, without sacrificing femininity along the way, and inspirational quotes from girls who’ve learned to love math. Again, these add to the book in the way that an ordinary study guide can’t. She also includes an afterword with troubleshooting advice–what to do if you’re having trouble beyond the actual math itself.

How does one (and especially someone with a high-level mathematics education) write a math book aimed at middle schoolers, and have it not “suck”? McKellar brought in the big guns for this one: her 12-year-old goddaughter, Tori–so I’ll trust that the examples she provides would resonate with middle school girls today. (My own 7-year-old daughter would probably like them, so I suppose that’s a decent enough proxy).

Overall, the book appears to me to be a good tool to have in the arsenal, but it alone, of course, won’t make girls like math (or make them good at it). In conjunction with supportive parents and teachers, though, “Math Doesn’t Suck” can certainly be a nice math resource for girls, encouraging them to gain confidence working math problems out themselves, and learning that girls who used to be afraid of math ended up in successful careers where their math education is being put to good use.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony Lucchese
    July 24, 2007

    I have been anxiously awaiting this book since I first heard of it months ago. I am preparing for a career change that will have me back in the classroom as a teacher, and a particular concern of mine is the ongoing and unnecessary gender gap in math and science fields. Anything that can be done to get young women excited about math is a wonderful thing. I’m glad to hear such a good review and I can’t wait until I can buy my own copy.

  2. #2 Agnostic
    July 25, 2007

    As Barbie infamously framed it, girls should think that “math is hard.”

    But Barbie’s right — math is hard! That’s the one class in high school that requires your undivided attention, lots of practice and repetition doing it, and you have to retain so much more foundational material than in any other class. Plus if you try to bullshit, you’ll be immediately caught and shamed, unlike in other courses.

    And to point out the obvious, McKellar herself “leaked out of the pipeline” — she majored in math and published a proof, for god’s sake. How much more positive encouragement does she need? I mean, in order to become a professional mathematician, i.e. putting in 80-100 hour weeks doing nothing but math? Or science research.

    What has she decided to do instead? Acting and writing books that help the needy get through the tough parts of their life, like a social worker. Females are far more likely than males to be interested in these people-oriented and helping pursuits, so that attempting to cloister them in a university math department would require removing their choice of career.

  3. #3 Ned
    July 25, 2007

    Danica McKellar has a
    Bacon-Erdos number
    of 6. Same as Feynmann.

  4. #4 Agnostic
    July 25, 2007

    BTW, I didn’t mean to come off as condescending or hectoring about what career path she’s chosen, like she’s giving up or selling out for doing what she’s doing rather than math research.

  5. #5 Koray
    July 25, 2007

    Well, it’s indeed a bit hypocritical to sell math while one’s an “actor/writer”: she didn’t need it anyway!

    So, will teenage girls pay no attention to a book written by an actual woman mathematician or scientist, possibly not looking as good on the cover?

  6. #6 tony lucchese
    July 25, 2007

    I’m a little confused at some of the above comments. There seems to be the implication, even when retracted, that only cloistered academics will have any use for a mathematical education. That is EXACTLY the attitude that keeps many young people, especially girls, from enjoying math. Math is a way of thinking, not algorithms and chalk boards, and it is for everyone. There was a time not so long ago when great men and women were expected to be multi-faceted. It was nothing to be an actor, writer, scientist, athlete, and mathematician. McKellar is of course using both her fame and her classic good looks to market the book, which some may find repugnant. But consider this. In an age when teen idols are making internet sex videos and getting busted for DUIs and cocaine possession, what’s wrong with giving them a strong, sexy role model that happens to love math?

  7. #7 Brian Thompson
    July 25, 2007

    I had a boyhood crush on Danica. I think this was before I really understood what that meant. I’m just more proud of it now, knowing that she’s a mathematician. That’s brilliant. And she’s a great rolemodel.

    I’m just worried that a lot of kids nowadays are still not going to be influenced. If I tried to tell a high school kid “Winnie’s a math major” They’re going to say “Winnie the Pooh? I thought he was taoist?” If she was still socially relevant, it would be better, but still her efforts are well applauded.

  8. #8 Lee Kottner
    July 25, 2007

    Agnostic, McKeller only “leaked out of the pipeline” if you really think there is such a thing. Why is writing a textbook (or teaching, for that matter) not considered a career in math or science? Why is research considered the One True Path? Has anybody stopped to ask that question lately? It seems to me the answer to that is all about prestige, not especially about actual usefulness, since there are many ways to make use of an education in any field if you have the imagination (or are encouraged) to do so. A good education, above all, teaches one to think. And teaching, I’d say, is one of the most important for the health of the profession. New scientists and mathematicians don’t make themselves.

    This idea that only academic life is pure and right has led to a glut on the Ph.D. market across the disciplines (ask English and History majors about this) and much unhappiness in graduates. It’s also incredibly foolish. Academic research centers can’t possibly handle all the research that needs to be done, nor can they front an R&D budget without grants as industry can. And frankly, that focus is helping to ruin teaching as a discipline in the place where it should be most highly valued.

  9. #9 bug_girl
    July 25, 2007

    AMEN! Well said Lee K.!

  10. #10 Sock Puppet of the Great Satan
    July 25, 2007

    There’s a similar glamourous Matho role model in the UK: Carol Vorderman(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Vorderman)

  11. #11 marciepooh
    July 25, 2007

    Any book that will help girls (or boys) realize that math is not just something you have to do in school is great! I can understand cringing at some of the examples in the book as being “girly” but real life examples of when they will use the math is important. Math is definitely a way of thinking and an important one to learn, even if one doeesn’t use it all the time.

    I breifly taught high school science and couldn’t believe how much trouble my students had using math in physics (didn’t help that I found math easy in school). I told them over and over again to get used to word problems because no one was ever going to ask them “what is X, when x^2 + 2x = 35″. They just rolled thier eyes.

  12. #12 Stephen Uitti
    July 25, 2007

    There are lots of tools to help kids with math. I’ve been finding that while attempting to help my son at it. I found it easy growing up, and have had to learn what it might mean if it weren’t.

    Things that i have found so far:

    Addition and subtraction are extremely important to get right. Without it, everything else falls over. I teach add, subtract, multiply and divide on fingers – modified from soroban (abacus) and chismbop (sp?).

    The key to teaching is to break down the steps into digestible chunks. It’s 11 lessons to add two numbers. Each lesson is one, possibly two, sentences. Then practice.

    Ideally, you want the rewards to outweigh the work. Like reading for enjoyment – it would be nice to have math for enjoyment. I’m still working on this. We need a ‘Harry Potter’ for math. Arithmancy, perhaps.

  13. #13 Agnostic
    July 25, 2007

    There seems to be the implication, even when retracted, that only cloistered academics will have any use for a mathematical education.

    OK, so you admit that you’ve already gone two degrees away from what I actually said. I neither said nor implied any such thing.

    This also gets at Lee’s comment — I don’t believe in the leaky pipeline tripe. That’s all coming from the Women in Science warriors — like, if a female who’s good at math doesn’t get a PhD, or gets a PhD but doesn’t end up on the math faculty, the system has failed her. The Women in Science activists don’t care if you get a bachelor’s and then do something sci/math-related with your career; they only tally up the male-female ratio of the Harvard or MIT math faculty.

  14. #14 ponderingfool
    July 25, 2007

    This also gets at Lee’s comment — I don’t believe in the leaky pipeline tripe. That’s all coming from the Women in Science warriors — like, if a female who’s good at math doesn’t get a PhD, or gets a PhD but doesn’t end up on the math faculty, the system has failed her. The Women in Science activists don’t care if you get a bachelor’s and then do something sci/math-related with your career; they only tally up the male-female ratio of the Harvard or MIT math faculty.
    *************************************************
    I don’t think it is every single woman who leaves science mentality it is the fact more women then men leave science who have an aptitude for it. There is pressure on women that men aren’t experiencing that is encouraging them to take alternative paths. Taking an alternative path is great and needed. Not everyone who gets a bachelors degree in the sciences can get a PhD and not all PhDs can become faculty members regardless of gender which is something I think most people understand. The problem is when certain segments of the population (like women) are being selected to to take alternative paths more so than others not based on talents but on stereotypes.

    With regards to Danica, you have someone who is twice exceptional. You will not find many people with her talents and passions with regards to math who also was a child TV star & trained as an actress.

  15. #15 Ron
    July 25, 2007

    When that Barbie was released, I wanted to reprogram the voice chips to say Partial differential equations with Neumann boundary conditions are hard. It’s not that I completely disagreed with Mattel, I just thought Barbie should have been more specific. Imagine the conversations: “Mommy, what’s a Neumann boundary condition?” “Well you see dear, that’s when you fix the value of the derivative on the boundary curve.”

  16. #16 tony lucchese
    July 25, 2007

    Agnostic, I readily admit that you probably did not mean to denigrate her career path. Your additional comment said exactly that. But you must have noticed how your first comment might read as being condescending, or you wouldn’t have posted an addendum. That, combined with some of the other comments, added to some critiques I’ve read in a similar vein, lead to my response. I meant no offense, and perhaps I should have said I “inferred” rather than you “implied.”

  17. #17 sea Creature
    July 26, 2007

    I used to tutor students in the pre-nursing program at a community college. These students struggled and often were shut out of what could have been a promising career because they couldn’t do the math – they couldn’t balance equations in chemistry, they couldn’t calculate dilutions (how many mg of something per cc will I have if I mix two different solutions with different concentrations, etc). Many were returning students trying to get out of dead end jobs. So many said to me “I wish I’d paid attention in math – I had no idea it would affect me this way later.”

  18. #18 JYB
    July 26, 2007

    Coincidently, I just randomly picked up a book called “In Code – A young woman’s mathematical journey” and it’s an autobiography of a 16 year-old girl in Ireland who won a prize in math.

  19. #19 Signout
    July 26, 2007

    Although I’m glad for any positive math/science message for girls, I also bristled a little at some of the content you quote. I wish we could move past the goal of retaining femininity despite an interest in math, and toward jettisoning this whole idea of femininity to begin with.

    That’s probably not the easiest sell to an 11-year old girl, though, and I’ll bet it’s a bitch to phrase as a word problem.

  20. #20 Stephen Wells
    July 27, 2007

    I can’t resist quoting Francis Bacon on the subject of maths education. This is from the early 1600s, the “Advancement of Learning.”

    “2. The Mathematics are either pure or mixed. To the Pure Mathematics are those sciences belonging which handle quantity determinate, merely severed from any axioms of natural philosophy; and these are two, Geometry and Arithmetic; the one handling quantity continued, and the other dissevered. [--] Mixed hath for subject some axioms or parts of natural philosophy, and considereth quantity determined, as it is auxiliary and incident unto them. [--] For many parts of nature can neither be invented with sufficient subtilty, nor demonstrated with sufficient perspicuity, nor accommodated unto use with sufficient dexterity, without the aid and intervening of the mathematics; of which sort are perspective, music, astronomy, cosmography, architecture, enginery, and divers others.

    In the Mathematics I can report no deficience, except it be that men do not sufficiently understand the excellent use of the Pure Mathematics, in that they do remedy and cure many defects in the wit and faculties intellectual. For if the wit be too dull, they sharpen it; if too wandering, they fix it; if too inherent in the sense, they abstract it. So that as tennis is a game of no use in itself, but of great use in respect it maketh a quick eye and a body ready to put itself into all postures; so in the Mathematics, that use which is collateral and intervenient is no less worthy than that which is principal and intended. [--] And as for the Mixed Mathematics, I may only make this prediction, that there cannot fail to be more kinds of them, as nature grows further disclosed. Thus much of Natural Science, or the part of nature speculative.”

  21. #21 guttapercha
    July 27, 2007

    Women who jettison the idea of femininity tend not to breed. If you want to end the “gender gap” in math and physics in the long run, you probably need to set up some kind of government eugenics program to encourage the traits.

  22. #22 Alvaro
    July 30, 2007

    Given recent research on how stress & anxiety reduce available working memory, which is critical for novel problem-solving and math, focusing on stress management interventions would certainly help: we should both try to change society and better equip individuals to react to existing prejudices/ pressures.

  23. #23 Professor Homunculus
    July 31, 2007

    You’ve got to be kidding, agnostic! Sniping at someone who’s so accomplished at so many things at such a young age and is taking the time and effort to help other, possibly less fortunate, people do the same?

    I thought I was cranky old guy, but, boy, you put me to shame!

    Without deifying good people, we can support decent role models, can’t we? How many other young female actresses get onto CNN and the Washington Post for something other than scandal?

    No one is claiming to make little Hypatias of Alexandria here, but Ms. McKellar is offering a valuable service. Come on, lighten up!

  24. #24 apaperbackwriter
    August 1, 2007

    “Women who jettison the idea of femininity tend not to breed.”
    Holy Hannah, guttapercha, that has to be the most sexist statement I’ve heard all day!! Whoa!
    On a lighter note, even though I am an English teacher, I can’t wait to get this book into my classroom library. I try to point out as often as I can that even though I wasn’t crazy about math when I was a kid, I still need to use it every single day. I don’t want them to think that English teachers don’t need to balance budgets, measure for new carpet, understand mathmatical relations in works of art and music — and figure a grading scale.

  25. #25 TW Andrews
    August 9, 2007

    ‘m a little confused at some of the above comments. There seems to be the implication, even when retracted, that only cloistered academics will have any use for a mathematical education. That is EXACTLY the attitude that keeps many young people, especially girls, from enjoying math. Math is a way of thinking, not algorithms and chalk boards, and it is for everyone. There was a time not so long ago when great men and women were expected to be multi-faceted. It was nothing to be an actor, writer, scientist, athlete, and mathematician. McKellar is of course using both her fame and her classic good looks to market the book, which some may find repugnant. But consider this. In an age when teen idols are making internet sex videos and getting busted for DUIs and cocaine possession, what’s wrong with giving them a strong, sexy role model that happens to love math?

    QFT.

  26. #26 amy
    August 18, 2012

    @Tony

    I’m a former girl; I have a girl. I’m also a science writer, and though I know I suck at math (calculus, it’s just not happening), by the non-STEM world’s standards I’m pretty handy with it.

    There’s no way I’d give my daughter Danica’s books, and if I did, she’d look at me like I’d lost my mind. She knows instinctively that simpering is degrading (god, what a lucky kid), and her entire attitude towards girls who do it is a knit-brow “what’s wrong with her?” I have no doubt she’ll take a lot of crap for that attitude from people with you, who like their girls sexy and pleasing. But that’s just the point. She isn’t your girl, she’s her own. And she’ll take crap from men for that one, too, and be told it’s her own fault. Take a good look at your own sexism, Tony.

    If you’re doing your job as a parent, your kid most likely isn’t interested in teen idols who make internet sex videos and get busted for DUIs and possession. I think you can safely raise your standards.

    There are some terrific math books out there; this isn’t one of them. My daughter’s been enjoying The Art of Problem Solving, which is a more fun book because smarter. When she’s old enough, too, she’ll understand that if it’s sexy you want with your math, you’ll probably find it filed under “smart”.

  27. #27 amy
    August 18, 2012

    Also, Tara, I hear what you’re saying on the “well, if it helps girls get into math” angle, but I think it’s akin to saying, “I guess it’s okay to teach kids to walk around feeling angry and blaming others for their lives if that gives them the energy to go out and exercise.” On balance it’s not a win.

    The problem, I think, lies in teaching. Find a good teacher who actually enjoys math, someone who’s kind and bright and likes playing with kids and can communicate, spend the time to do it one-on-one, and I think you’ll get somewhere. My kid’s school uses those dumb Everyday Math books (which reminds me, I have to have the Calculator Conversation with the teacher again — it boils down to No, Don’t Please), so beginning of last year she was coming home all mopey and saying she hated math and was no good at that. Yes, it took some time to sit and tutor her — and I’m a single mom, so I don’t have all the time in the world for this — but within a few weeks she was lighting up, and had moved to the top math group in her class. No Valspeak necessary.