Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 15 Oct 2007

Danica McKellar, TWIS, and Why Not to be Dumb

Last week, one of my favorite science podcasts, This Week in Science, had an interview with Danica McKellar. You may remember Danica -- she's written a book for middle school girls called Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. You may also know her as Winnie Cooper from the old TV show The Wonder Years, or more recently on West Wing, and she's also a math graduate and co-author of the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem.

Anyway, the interview is great for anyone interested in the general question of math education. They get into questions like "Why study math?" and "Why do people find word problems so hard?"

She talks about a survey she passed out to middle school girls while she was working on the book. Some of the questions had to do with what they thought of smart girls and dumb girls, and on the latter, the most common answer was "There are no dumb girls -- they're just pretending to be dumb."

She was shocked by that. If you play dumb, she tells girls, you'll get into the habit. If you play dumb to get that guy, you'll have to keep playing dumb to keep him, and it'll become more and more ingrained. Eventually you'll start believing it. You'll feel worse and worse about yourself and you might not even realize why. And stopping it later might be a lot harder than you think.

She had a great analogy about that from her days on The Wonder Years. One episode involved people teasing her character for being a goody-two-shoes, and in particular her good posture. She read the script and was mortified -- "I do sit straighter than everybody else! Oh, no! I'm not cool! I should slump more!" She practiced for weeks, sitting hunched over in the cafeteria and in class so that by the time the episode came out, people at school would say "Oh, well, she was just acting -- see, she really slumps like everybody else so she's actually cool." She made it a habit.

Now, ten years later, she's noticing back problems and trying to get over that habit and fix her bad posture, and it's not easy! And of course, at the time nobody noticed and it didn't make a bit of difference to her school popularity.

On word problems, her book offers a table helping people in mapping real-world word problems to the right equation (for example, if it says "a third of", that means 1/3 *). She also stresses using problems about subjects students care about. Co-host Justin comments that word problems in school math books always tended to be obsessed with trains leaving station A and arriving at station B, which doesn't relate to most kids' lives very much. Why not, Danica suggests, design word problems about buying magazines or sharing chocolate bars?

Anyway, it's a great interview, and I hope her book sells well and changes the world. I have a presentation coming up myself to a middle school girls' group in a few days (on astronomy) and I'm going to pick up a copy to make sure the girls know about it.

McKellar's website is mathdoesntsuck.com and you can listen to the whole interview on the TWIS podcast. If you like science podcasts, you'll want to check out TWIS anyway. They cover cool stuff and they do it well, with the nice bonus that it's hosted by a very sharp woman, Dr. Kirsten Sanford (plus goofy guy sidekick Justin Jackson). This particular episode starts with a fun and detailed discussion on listener responses to the "falling through a tube drilled through the center of the Earth" problem before they get to the interview. Check it out!

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[ 21:16 Oct 15, 2007    More education | permalink to this entry ]