Prom dates, perfect hair, and polynomials

Danica McKellar encourages girls’ love of math by reinventing their textbooks

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What does one get when Paul Erdős, Kevin Bacon, The Wonder Years, math books, and pre-teen girls are combined? Surprisingly, the result of the collision of these elements is not that of antimatter and matter (which would result in the release of gamma rays), but instead an actress-turned-mathematician-turned-author: Danica McKellar.

Her three math books are all directed toward pre-teen girls. They contain little nuggets of wisdom from McKellar regarding boys, success, self-confidence, and the like. They are packaged more like fashion magazines than math textbooks, with covers featuring phrases such as “What Guys Really Think About Smart Girls” and “Boy Crazy Confessionals.”

For me, learning math started long before my pre-teen years. My father allegedly began cultivating mathematical seeds in my mind when I was still in my mother’s womb. As much as I resented this in my youth, I now appreciate the importance of understanding fundamental mathematics from a young age.

However, for many parents battling their young and angst-filled children, teaching them math might not be the easiest task. With this in mind, I think it might be useful to talk about crushes in math textbooks. Let’s face it: for many heterosexual pre-teen girls, if asked to choose between boys or math, they would probably pick the former.

Although these books talk about boys, friends, and clothes, they are still math textbooks: they contain all the standard algebra information on how to solve for x, and whatnot. The seemingly superfluous tidbits may in fact be instructive to the overall learning process – beyond their mathematical applications. Although I have never experienced gender inequality when trying to do my differential equations, many girls may be intimidated by what seems like a male-dominated world. McKellar writes in the books that learning math is not just about tricky algebra and solving for x, but can be a parallel about overcoming life’s obstacles in moving toward your own goals.

Should all textbooks take a leaf from McKellar’s book? Should our math books include encouraging life stories? Should organic chemistry textbooks put a little “Good Job!” note after every tenth problem? Should the publishers of textbooks put a little more effort into making their books a little more enjoyable rather than churning out a new edition every few years?

Although some textbooks are slightly less visually offensive than others, due to the inclusion of nicely spaced bodies of text and coloured pictures, in general I cannot say that I have met anyone who loves to read them, save for those who love the subject.

Why aren’t textbooks written with the social context – or entertainment – of the students in mind?

We view learning at the post-secondary level as a prestigious act. After all, it is “higher education.” Many of the subjects we study all have a sense of importance. They have existed for generations and it would be daunting to approach academic subjects and “vandalize” them with irrelevant information.

I believe that there is an element of elitism and exclusiveness to education. The more people who can do calculus, master kinematics, or understand mechanisms for chemical reactions, the less special it becomes. This is not to say that textbooks are purposely trying to be difficult to understand. In fact, the contrary is true: textbooks are competing to be the most easily understood. But not many textbooks will actually try to sell the subject itself. Unlike McKellar’s books – which seem to try to sell math itself to teen girls – many textbooks are aimed at those people who are probably already a part of academia.

We can’t know whether textbooks will change, and for now I must resign myself to the rather sleep-inducing ones I have. But I cannot help but wish that the author of my book would put a little box in the side column telling me about the time he had acne as a teen and the girl he loved cruelly rejected him.