Person of the Week: Danica McKellar

Actress goes from "The Wonder Years" to inspire girls to excel in math.

ByABC News

Aug. 10, 2007 — -- At a time when so many young Hollywood stars are finding themselves in trouble with drugs, alcohol and the law, Danica McKellar is someone who escaped the perils of child stardom and now wants to present a different role model to young women.

"There is an epidemic right now of girls dumbing themselves down … in middle school because they think its makes them attractive," she said. "[It] could be because of the role models they are getting in the media."

She's trying to change that with a fun, sassy book about math to encourage middle school girls to recognize they can excel in both the classroom and their social life.

After this segment aired on "World News with Charles Gibson" McKellar answered viewer math questions in a Q+A here.

"Unfortunately girls think that being glamorous means making mistakes and being irresponsible. And that's just not true. The smarter you are, the better prepared you are to make decisions in your life, the more likely you are to lead a satisfying life and be glamorous and fun and anything you want to be," McKellar said.

The 32-year-old got her start in Hollywood 20 years ago as Winnie Cooper on TV's "The Wonder Years," and has since appeared on "The West Wing" and Lifetime's "Inspector Mom." And as she was racking up acting credits, she was also excelling in math.

In high school she aced her math SAT and AP calculus exam and took a chance on a math degree at UCLA after some initial trepidation.

"I didn't think that college math was for me. I didn't think I'd be able to hack it," McKellar said. "And that perception of math not being for girls, not being for girls who see themselves as socially well adjusted has got to change."

After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in math and a published physics theorem, McKellar realized she had something to offer off-screen.

She believes that girls get the message in middle school that "if you're really smart then you're not cool."

"When girls are asking themselves 'Who am I?' for the first time and they hear all this bad PR about math, they think, 'Well, whoever I am, I'm not somebody who likes math," said McKellar.

So she decided to write the book "Math Doesn't Suck" to change that perception.

"The title was not my idea. I was struggling with ideas because I wanted the book to give the feeling of look, math has got a friendly face, it's doable, it's fine, it's accessible, but the names I was coming up with just did not work. It was like, 'Make Friends with Math' … God no," she said.

It's written in a whimsical voice, comparing math to acne and other preteen concerns.

"In reaching the middle school girl's audience I wanted to keep in mind what are girls thinking about at that age? … Boys, makeup, jewelry, fashion, who am I? I took every quiz in every teen magazine known to man because you think you're going to get the answer to 'Who am I?'" she explained. "I thought, let me do it in that context, why not? Why not teach math in the context of being a girl?"

Well, because some people think it is a contradiction to mix the superficial with the serious, but she disagrees.

"There is no problem with being able to look cute if you want to and do a math problem. It doesn't affect your brain. The makeup doesn't seep into your skull and allow you to not think as clearly."

To read an excerpt of the book "Math Doesn't Suck" click here.

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