Ex-Wonder Years star sells maths to girls with lipstick

Danica McKellar, who played Winnie on The Wonder Years, has just published a book on maths aimed at girly-girls. Wired briefly interviews her this issue.

I have to admit to a bit of skepticism about this: I have to admit to never really getting the impression that maths was a subject for boys through my entire school career. Perhaps I was a bit blinkered by my maths-pushing parents, but there you go. Boring, perhaps, boyish, no. McKellar says:

I had done quite a bit of research about math education when I spoke before Congress in 2000 about the importance of women in mathematics. The session of Congress was all about raising more scholarships for girls (in math) in college. I told them I felt that it’s too late by (the time they get to) college. If you look the stats, girls start losing interest in math and grades start dropping in middle school. That’s where you have to put the money.

So accepting that it’s true that girls get turned off maths, it probably is a good idea to try and win them round. But much as I loved Winnie, I can’t get behind McKellar’s approach. For example:

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.

Just hearing it described that way makes me cringe. However much a particular girl might love beads, it’s just insulting to assume that she needs her maths problems expressed in necklace-related-terms in order to understand it. It sounds unbearably patronising to me. It’s actually called Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math and not Break a Nail. Yeah. Really. At least the cover isn’t a pink cartoon girl juggling nail varnish and a calculator.

Where the book probably does have a role is providing tips to make maths easier – or at least take away from the idea that it’s hard. For example:

“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!”