Actress and author Danica McKellar appeared on the Children’s Stage at the 2018 Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. That Labor Day weekend, she drew a lot of applause from the parents and over 30 attendees in the crowd when her role of Winnie from The Wonder Years was mentioned.
Since those days on the hit show, McKellar went on to complete a mathematics degree at UCLA. You can see her on Hallmark movies and Netflix series Project Mc2, but it’s her work in math education that we can look to as among her most important endeavors.
Diving into the challenges of a math degree was a very rewarding experience for McKellar after Wonder Years ended. “It really helped me get through those post-child star years at UCLA, where everyday everybody said, ‘Hey Winnie, where’s Kevin?’” she said.
In 2000, McKellar was asked to testify at a Congressional subcommittee that was examining funding to math programs for women in college. She read the full report totaling 100 pages and pointed out that the subcommittee was not hitting the root of the problem. “It wasn’t in the executive summary. Middle school is the time when girls start to lose confidence in math,” she recalled about her in-depth research.
College was too late for young women, she’d pointed out. Seeing herself as a “PR machine” for math, McKellar was determined to help fix the problem. Those efforts resulted in a series of math guides with empowering messages for teenage girls. “Math can be for everyone. You can be smart and savvy, and yes, a fabulous, glamorous girl if that’s what you want. You don’t have to choose one or the other,” she explained.
After a break from writing, McKellar returned to write books for a younger, co-ed audience. However, the math curriculum changed as the Common Core State Standards Initiative took off in schools. The terminology used to teach math was different. McKellar sought to address the problem it posed to parents. She said, “I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a resource that helps parents and kids with the new way it’s taught.”
The math author stays in contact with teachers as well to further ensure that her books are applying her research correctly. It is a dialogue in which she places immense value. “I get so much wonderful information,” she reflected about her process. “I talk to teachers before I even start writing a book.”
McKellar shakes her head time and again when she hears young people ask how they’ll ever use math in the real world. When she has opportunities to visit schools, she puts forth her defense about the usefulness of math. One key argument concerns finances. People who are good at math are not as likely to “get ripped off” on their daily purchases. “Math is the language of money,” McKellar reminds them.
Her biggest advice to parents is to start math as early as they can with their children. “It could be shopping at the grocery store. If you buy three pounds of turkey and it costs five dollars a pound, show them the multiplication in the real world,” she urged.
I perused her books Goodnight Numbers and Do Not Open This Math Book the evening before the Festival and I was impressed. The math is broken down into components that children can understand, but is also wonderfully entertaining. I wish there had been more math books like these when I was growing up. If you would like to obtain interesting math resources for a child in your life, look no further than Danica McKellar’s engaging and instructional books.