Review of "Math Doesn't Suck": Because Smart is Sexy

i-b0ec4d064f3e66a6de98cc2ccd258003-MDS_revised-xsmForWeb.jpgWhen I had the opportunity to review Danica McKellar's new book Math Doesn't Suck, I was excited on two levels. First and foremost, it's aimed at getting girls interested in math. I've always been flummoxed as to why the subject is such a male dominated field and curious to find out how Danica would take it on. Second, there's a more personal issue of having been nicknamed Winnie Cooper since elementary school because most everyone seemed to think we look an awful lot alike. (You can judge after the jump). And now it turns out we do indeed have something very real in common aside from long dark hair: Danica and I are both interested in getting girls excited to pursue science and math by making these disciplines personally relevant and presenting them in an engaging way.

So what does Winnie Cooper know about mathematics? Turns out McKellar's a math whiz. Following The Wonder Years, she graduated summa cum laude from UCLA where she coauthored a groundbreaking mathematical physics theorem. Not bad for a child star, especially these days. My full review after the jump...

I have to admit, when I initially looked at Math Doesn't Suck, I was thrown by the cover because it appears like something you'd see on Seventeen Magazine... 'How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind Or Breaking A Nail.' Bold text asks 'Do you still have a crush on him?' and 'Are you a math-o-phobe? Take this quiz'... I was skeptical. Then I opened the book and read:

Most of all, working on math sharpens you brain, actually making you smarter in all areas. Intelligence is real, it's lasting, and no one can take it away from you. Ever.
And take it from me, nothing can take the place of the confidence that comes from developing your intelligence - not beauty, or fame, or anything else "superficial".

Right on! Each chapter covers a different theme from prime numbers to fractions, framed as related to familiar activities like shopping, cooking, and babysitting. i-bf6ae75baa850ee1fa287be98dafa724-mckellar kirshenbaum.JPGFor example, a side-by-side comparison of people introduces the chapter on finding common factors. By using real life situations, McKellar demonstrates that understanding fundamentals of the math involved is an asset. She tackles each problem step-by-step and even offers alternative approaches to reach the right solution. With personal contributions highlighting real womens' experiences and quotes from girls of all ages, you sort of feel like it's advice from an older sister rather than a tutorial. And I especially like Danica's shortcuts and memory strategies. A few tricks were even new to me.

Tara recently spoke with Danica McKellar and highlighted the importance of encouraging girls' abilities. She emphasized that we need to move past stereotypes suggesting that girls who are good at math are 'just nerds who will never get a date.' Wait... no one ever told me about that stereotype! I'm a geek and my experiences are more in line with Danica's perspective:

Smart is friggin' sexy!

Damn straight. And gentlemen take note because that goes for you too. Intelligence and confidence are the strongest aphrodisiacs!

While this book doesn't revolutionize mathematics, it does succeed in making the connections to why it is important and relevant. Throw involved parents and great teachers in the mix and you've got your middle schooler off to a great start. And call me optimistic, but I expect more women will soon be contributing to the field. Math is cool, may be the only universal language we've got, and furthermore...smart is sexy!

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You and Danica excel with positive attitudes, abilities, confidence, and the desire to convey this to and for others.
And also, you both do resemble each other a bit.

my gf has employed several people (male and female) who were college graduates who couldn't do multiplication in their head (i'm talking multiplication table multiplication, e.g., 8 X 8). you don't realize how you take this sort of thing for granted until you meet someone who is always flying dark about basic proportions because they can't multiply. anyway, the federal gov. should subsidize these sorts of books, for young people in general, because from what i've seen once you make it into your 20s and you don't know your "times tables," you'll never catch up.

As a father of a daughter who sought to hide her brains around guys I can tell you that this type of book is long over due. Although my girl saw the light when she went to university, there were many times I could have pulled my own hair out by the roots while she was in high school when I heard her dumb herself down on the phone to some guy.

'Smart is friggin' sexy!' has actually always been true. I fell for my wife of thirty years when she handed me my head over a chessboard at the Oval coffee house. I knew at once I had to have this girl, and I was no slouch at chess in those days.

Sheril (and others),

I'm always looking to add good reviews by others at my Science Shelf website (click my name).

Could I use this? If so, please e-mail me review part of the text, including any html elements you want to include. Add 1-2 sentences as a "shirttail" with a description of who you are and what you do, and I'll add it with pleasure.

There are e-mail links on most pages of The Science Shelf.

P.S.: I loved the pop-culture elements of this. I didn't push to get an assignment for this title because I am not tuned into the teens-to-twenties pop-culture scene.

If only my more of my female students recognized that intelligence is fashionable. Sheril, I wonder how old you are. I wish you might come and speak to my classes.

By Flora Peterson (not verified) on 10 Aug 2007 #permalink

"Smart is friggin' sexy!"

Amen to that! It's one of the first things I certainly look for in a female. (I hope the same is true for females in their search of a male partner, too!)

I believe that intelligence likely makes a relationship last longer as a couple (as long as both partners fall into the same category, of course) would stay interested in each other.

Does this ring true to most of you, too?

By Stephen Berg (not verified) on 12 Aug 2007 #permalink

There's a problem: the "smart is sexy" message unquestioningly endorses the sexist slander that says that females' first priority is making themselves attractive to males. Intelligence here is presented as a means to that end. Relating math to shopping and cooking as a way to make it interesting to girls is as sexist as making pink, domestic-themed legos for girls and legos of every other theme, in every other color, for boys. I'm sick of it. But who knows, maybe mixing up the stereotypes like this will be good in the long run.