As doe-eyed Winnie Cooper in the 1988-1993 ABC series The Wonder Years, teenage actress Danica McKellar outwardly portrayed confidence and success beyond her years. But at her desk inside a seventh-grade classroom, she stared at math quizzes as if they were written in Chinese, became sick to her stomach and experienced what she describes as a “total brain freeze.”
After a teacher presented McKellar with a tantalizing approach to the subject, she surprised herself by majoring in mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating summa cum laude. She also has written three New York Times best-sellers about math and co-authored the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem, which has applications for math and physics. All the while, she continues a successful acting career and is a proud mother to her young son, Draco.
Her favorite role? Inspiring millions of young girls to really dig math. “Math is a language that needs to be translated, and the way you translate it can mean all the difference in the world, especially for young girls,” says McKellar, 40. “One of my missions is to inspire girls to be whoever they want to be and to be as smart as they want to be.”
Her advice? “If you are struggling with a math problem, don’t get help right way. It’s OK to struggle a bit. Try to work it out on your own first—that’s how you can develop strong brain muscles.”
McKellar goes on to say that math builds confidence, helps with everyday tasks such as cooking measurements and budgeting, and spawns logical thinking. “Doing math is like going to the gym for your brain,” she adds. “The better problem-solver you are in math, the better problem-solver you are in all aspects of life.”
McKellar’s breakthrough book, Math Doesn’t Suck, written for middle-school girls, tackles multiplication tables, long division, fractions and more with an easy-to-digest, can-do approach. A sampling of her chapter titles: “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Pizza but Were Afraid to Ask” (introducing fractions and mixed numbers), “How Much Do You and Your Best Friend Have in Common?” (showcasing common denominators as well as adding and subtracting fractions) and “How to Entertain Yourself While Babysitting a Devil Child” (teaching how to convert decimals to fractions).
She followed up that with the books Kiss My Math, Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape and Hot X: Algebra Exposed! She’s creative in her teaching techniques. For instance, one of her tactics for combating math phobia is for students to create a “cheat sheet” that they pretend they can use during the test. Writing down vital formulas, processes and definitions “is a great way to study for a test,” McKellar says.
Joanne Hopper, a retired director of educational services for St. Clair County Regional Education Service Agency in Michigan, invited McKellar to meet with middle-school teachers when her book Math Doesn’t Suck first came out. “Danica is definitely a brainiac but very approachable,” Hopper says. “Far too many middle-school girls feel like they can’t relate to mathematical concepts, but Danica speaks their language, uses relatable examples, and makes them believe that they can and will be good at math. I gave her books to my nieces when they were preteens, and they both enjoy math.”
Kelsie Prevost, a kindergarten teacher in Clio, Mich., remembers the impact that Math Doesn’t Suck had on her. “Math was my least favorite subject in school,” Prevost says. “I was 19 or 20 when Danica’s book first came out, and I immediately was drawn to all her creative ways she came up with to look at math and to embrace problem-solving. I’ve brought some of her teaching techniques down to the kindergarten level to make math fun for my students.”
As for McKellar, she credits now-retired teacher Barbara Jacobson for playing a key role in her mindset turnaround from fearing to embracing math. “Mrs. Jacobson took over our math class midway through the seventh grade, and saw me struggling in math and crying that I didn’t understand my homework,” McKellar recalls. “She helped me immensely to understand and really enjoy math. She taught me that the way you present math can completely make a positive difference in a young girl’s life.”
Today McKellar and Jacobson remain good friends.
“One of my major philosophies is that every child learns in a different way,” says Jacobson, 78. “I was able to get her to see that there are different approaches to problem-solving. She went on to become an A student in math…. Many people know her as a successful actress, but to me, she is a talented teacher who does a beautiful job of reaching girls and encouraging them to love math.”
McKellar, who has had guest roles on TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, relied on the perseverance skills learned from math when she competed on Dancing with the Stars in 2014. “I’ve been telling young girls to embrace and not run away from challenges, and I got to test my own advice on Dancing with the Stars. It was the hardest thing I ever did. Each week, there were new dance steps and techniques to learn. But I reminded myself that this is a challenge to embrace.”
What’s next for McKellar? She is starring in an upcoming Netflix series called Project Mc2 and working on a math book for children up to age 6, a group that includes Draco, 5.
“Draco can count to 100, do simple addition and is an exceptional reader,” McKellar says. “If he doesn’t know a word, he forms it out. For me, I like numbers; I really love math. But at his age, I think Draco likes garbage trucks the most.”
This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.