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Why Math?
posted on April 14th, 2011

Ah, the question I’ve heard countless times since I decided to pursue a math major at UCLA many moons ago… “But you’re an actress, why on earth would you want to study math?”

Good question, especially considering the fact that I had struggled with math in middle school to the point of nightly tears![1] Sure, things improved after I was lucky enough to get some great teachers, but really? A math major?

Here's how it happened: I graduated from high school and the The Wonder Years within a few months of each other. It had been a great time in my life, but I was ready for a new chapter – I was going to college and figured I’d learn the behind-the-camera crafts of screenwriting and directing at UCLA's film school. A fresh, new start! Right? Wrong.

Everywhere I went, people recognized me and often called out across campus, “Hey Winnie, where’s Kevin?” At a time in life when most people (including me!) are trying to figure out their identity, I felt like I was stuck in mine – and it wasn’t even my identity, but that of a fictional character! I just needed to know who I was outside of that show, y’know?

In the meantime, I decided to face my middle school demons and take a math class to fulfill a general requirement. And not just any math class - Multivariable Calculus. I'd always liked a good challenge, and I figured I'd go for it and just hope for the best.

To my surprise, I really "got" the material - with tons of studying of course - and even shot to the top of the class after the first midterm. I earned the attention and praise from math professors throughout the department (many of whom didn’t own a television) and I was having fun. I abandoned the film major plan, and switched to math. I became a calculus tutor in the department, and at least in the halls of the UCLA math department, I went from “that girl on TV” to “that girl who helped me pass calculus.”

I felt the empowerment of the confidence that comes from feeling smart and capable – stuff having nothing to do with the glamour of Hollywood - and I was hooked. I liked the new identity I was building for myself; it felt good on the inside. As a bonus, getting recognized on the street became really entertaining, as when people would ask, “So what are you up to now?” the answer of pursuing a math degree always promised a fun reaction.

That newfound confidence taught me a big lesson: Being smart is something you can build for yourself. Investing that time and effort in something like math actually strengthens your brain and internal fortitude, making you smarter and more confident in all areas. And that kind of true confidence from within is a gift you give yourself that no-one else can give you... and no-one else can take away from you. Ever.

That's why I chose math, and why I encourage others not to run away from math - especially teenage girls.

The truth is, all teenagers struggle like I did. You don’t have to be on TV to feel the pressures of trying to figure out who you are while surrounded by a world of negative messages that tell girls their only true value is how attractive they are (whether in Hollywood or not). And math is the best way I've found to combat those omnipresent messages, by building true confidence and strength from the inside.

This of course is why I've written math books for tween/teen girls, to fight the unfair stereotyping that conspires to hold them back. While breaking down math concepts, I tell girls: "You don't have to choose between being smart and being fun & fabulous. In fact, they work great together. And math is going to build up your brain and your confidence, and I'll make it fun and entertaining to do!"

I love all the emails I get from girls, telling me how I've changed their whole outlook on math, and of course helped them improve their test scores (sometimes literally overnight!)

It feels great to come full circle, from the 12-year-old girl crying over her math homework, to an insecure 18-year-old child star searching for an identity, and finally to a grown woman with the power - through my books - to help girls going through the same stuff.

I'm so very grateful for this journey!

Book Comparison

[1] My parents tried so hard to comfort me... they weren't the kind of parents to put pressure on me - quite the opposite - they often seemed bewildered by my tears!


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posted by businessofmom on April 14th, 2011

I'm honestly pretty psyched about buying some of your books. I've always bought into that, \I use a different part of my brain that was more geared toward English than the other side with Math\". I don't know. I don't NEED to learn math to finish a class

posted by ione on April 15th, 2011

the real deal, danica mckellar! you're making a difference in this world :-)

posted by sandiegosocialdiary on April 15th, 2011

Math is one of the fundamentals of learning and living.... Danica MdKellar, through her books, simplifies mathematics to a palatable equation.

posted by alpriest on April 15th, 2011

Danica, I have always been proud of your accomplishments in math! I plan to see if one of your books might be applicable to helping Sabrina, age 7, with math. She has a diagnosed learning disability and I need to see if your work might be applicable to her at her age. You've never met the \gang\" but Grammy met Monique and Daniel when he was about 3 or so. :)"

posted by Ana on April 16th, 2011

If you had to summarize what you most appreciate about math, what would you say?

posted by cindypacific on April 16th, 2011

Thank you for your books and the blog. I teach pre-service teachers who will teach middle and high school math. We use the books in class and I will have them read the blog, too. I wish I had your books when my daughters were at that vulnerable age. Although I was giving them much the same message, it would have had much more significance coming from you than from Mom.

posted by salvi992 on April 18th, 2011

Well, I wroted this on Facebook, but I would like share it again. My relation with Maths (in some aspects) was similar to yours. I was very good at Maths at elementary school but at secondary I had a bad teacher. He filled the blackboard with strange formulas. Maths became more and more abstract. I wished to study Computer Science at University and I had also to face my demons (it wasn't an optional but a compulsory need if you wanted to survive there). But I had no a \good teacher\". I had to use my own middle school maths books to refresh all my skills. I had some luck because I owned an encyclopedia. One of the books was dedicated to Maths

posted by balletomane3 on April 22nd, 2011

First. I shall point out that I am a male. I looooove science and math. Both of these transcend mankind. While we have managed to control many things, many, many more science and math things control us. Both have shaped everything that has allowed us to come to exist and be able to think and reason. Whenever I am reading a book about quaternions or telemeres or dynamic programming or error detection / correcton, etc. I feel like I am home and as if I am doing the universe an honor by trying to learn about it. Both science and math allows me to rise above some repulsive human BS that I see happening all over the news. I think that a lot of people are bored to death to the point of destructive behavior and need to be engaged in something other than daytime talkshow style human drama to find some peace. Science and math studies can help with this. Ummm. Plus, science / math / computer programming / .etc pay well. This means I don't have all of the worries and stresses that a person working in retail would have.

posted by kdusna84 on April 23rd, 2011

That is a good story. I have a daughter who is just finishing up the third grade. She has done very well in math so far and they are covering what is probably mid 4th grade material. But story problems kind of threw her for a loop and she lost some of her confidence. I happen to love math, so coaching her back to the confidence level she was before was great. But it was tough because she put so much pressure on herself despite my efforts to keep it as fun as possible. Eventually we got there, and she is much more comfortable with word problems. I just want her to have the confidence to take on any challenge in math. I plan to have her read your books when she gets a little bit older. You will serve as a good role model for her. Thanks for setting a great example for all students, but especially young girls.

posted by mathgirl on May 28th, 2011

I teach 7th grade math and use your books and stories all the time as an additional resource in my classes. Keep them coming!

posted by barbara.healey on August 7th, 2011

I am a 6th grade math teacher and would very much like to do a club focusing on a book study with my sixth graders using \Math Doesn't Suck\". Does anyone know if there is a book study guide available for this purpose?"

posted by AK on November 16th, 2011

Dear Danica, I have an 11 year old boy who is struggling with math, I wish I can help him, but I am terrified with math myself. I wonder if your books are boys friendly or if you are going to make a version for them?

posted by In Honor of Pi Day Let’s Celebrate Women’s Contributions to Mathematics: « thepreppypostgrad on March 14th, 2012

[...] Danika Why Math?  [...]

posted by CHEVY57 on May 3rd, 2012

Danica; In grammer school I had a lot of problems with math also, it wasn't until second year H.S that I discovered my talent. I think your books on math are something more people should bring to this world, a lot of math learning ability is tied to fear. Great acting changes the world, but you have changed it in another way, which is great. One of your greatest acting talent is your facial expressions. Your one of the few actors that have this quality. If you notice in a lot of your moviies, especially the LMN movies the camera operator will film you not talking for longer periods of time then any other actors in the movie. Your facial expressions are very analytical and meaningfull, Do you think that you always had the mathmatical talent all along. Chevy57

posted by klaatu on November 3rd, 2012

Thank you Danica for that very special & intimate insight into your world. It is quite out of the ordinary to read a successful actor describe themselves as honestly as that! In the cut-throat industry that you are involved in it is all perfection, perfection, perfection like you say. I am involved in a movement (I'm very much on the fringe, I don't think I would ever be considered for recruitment) that elaborate on the concepts that you speak of: (ps, this movements first Grand Master was Pythagoras!! This is the reason I am badgering you with this topic) This is an extract of one of their articles: "In women's magazines there's never a word about science, history, economics, politics, philosophy, religion, technology. Conspiracy theories are never mentioned. Women's magazines are all about physical appearance, fashion, gossip and celebrities. Who's fat, who's thin, who's pretty, who's ugly, who's wearing what, who's up, who's down, who are the new stars, what are the old stars doing? Women's magazines are the sanctification of trivia. They are devoid of intelligent thought. Sex and the City - one of the most popular women's TV shows of recent years - is a story of career women with expensive shoes. That's it! They moan about men, but are obsessed with getting Mr Right. After decades of feminism, women are still locked in the frivolous, intellectually sterile world of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published almost two hundred years ago." This is the web page from which the paragraph was copied: Don't let the title fool you, it's not about conspiracy theories! I don't know why they chose that URL name.

posted by selectmytutor on March 20th, 2015

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posted by jennyanams on November 15th, 2016

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