After a stroll down tv memory lane, this post will be about mathematics -- I promise. Remember the show The Wonder Years, circa 1988 - 1993, staring Fred Savage as the coming-of-age protagonist? If so, you might also remember his love interest, Winnie Cooper, played by Danica McKellar (of more recent West Wing fame). During the time when the show was airing, who could guess that McKellar would later find a career as a math advocate and author?
McKellar graduated summa cum laude from the mathematics department at UCLA. Based on her undergraduate work, she published a paper called Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin–Teller models on , which proves some results for a simple model of magnetization. In recent years, she has been working as an author and public speaker to raise math awareness. Her special focus is encouraging girls to enjoy and succeed at math.
I have not read McKellar's books Math Doesn't Suck, Kiss my Math, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed, but I hope to peek at them soon, and maybe read them with my daughter one day. As the father of a 3.5 year old girl, I am keenly concerned about women in mathematics. One problem is simply that we don't have enough women in mathematical professions; see this report from the American Association of University Women for some analysis and recommendations. An even broader and more fundamental problem is the subtle, unintentional (and sometimes not-so-subtle, not-so-unintentional) message sent to young girls that math is just not for them. Regardless of whether my daughter grows up to be a scientist, a lawyer, a welder, a poet, an athlete, or anything else, I want her to have a strong math education because it will help her succeed in life, because it is part of being a well-rounded person, and because quantitative understanding helps build a stronger society.
While McKellar's titular assessment that "Math doesn't suck" undershoots a little bit, I am really grateful for her voice -- and for every loud voice -- reaching out to young girls.