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Danica McKellar: A Math “Wonder”

People | October 12, 2018

Actress Danica McKellar on July 27, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/WireImage)

As a child actress, Danica McKellar rose to prominence for playing Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, the on-again/off-again girlfriend of the show’s protagonist, Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage. McKellar’s Winnie Cooper was the perfect girl-next-door and helped to make the show, which ran from 1988 to 1993 on ABC, so popular. But there is a side to Danica McKellar that you may not know…the brainy side! McKellar is a super-smart mathematician who has written academic papers on mathematics, has a theorem named for her, and has authored several mathematics books. Here is the story of Danica McKellar, the math “wonder”. 

Danica McKellar with her The Wonder Years co-star, Fred Savage.

Danica McKellar, the Child Actress

Danica McKellar and her sister, Crystal, were both child actresses in Hollywood, but it was Danica’s role in The Wonder Years that made her famous. She was barely 13 when she landed the role of Winnie Cooper, a character she played for the next five years. Although McKellar’s parents, Christopher and Mahaila McKellar, supported their daughters’ acting careers, education was the main focus of their upbringing. 

(The Hallmark Channel)

McKellar went to College After The Wonder Years

When filming concluded on The Wonder Years, Danica McKellar enrolled in UCLA and majored in mathematics. She graduated summa cum laude in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. She seriously considered abandoning acting for a career as a professional mathematician. She once said, “I just love this stuff. I love continuous functions and proving if functions are continuous or not.” 

McKellar Easily Proved Her Math Genius

While still an undergrad, McKellar and another student, Brandy Winn, worked alongside her professor, Lincoln Chayes, to author an academic paper that was published in scientific journals. This was the first time that Chayes had ever offered a research opportunity to undergraduate students, but he was impressed with McKellar’s natural mathematical instincts, as well as her ability to question unknown functions. Later, Professor Chayes told the New York Times that McKellar and Winn were “really, really first-rate”. 

McKellar Even has a Theorem Named for Her

McKellar and Winn worked on their project for months, sometimes spending twelve hours a day on it. Because they were still undergraduate students, they had not yet taken some of the courses that would have given them the background knowledge needed to do their work. Professor Chayes tutored both students for hours each week to give them the background information to help them with their project. This was all in addition to their regular course load of rigorous math classes. In the end, McKellar and Winn developed a theorem, a mathematical theory that is accepted as fact because the steps can all be proven through reasoning. It is known as the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem. 

Danica McKellar Became an Education Advocate

In college, McKellar became more acutely aware of the gender gap that still exists in mathematics. She took on the role of being an educational advocate supporting girls, especially middle school girls, to become more involved in math. In 2000, she spoke on the need to attract more women to math and science programs before a Congressional subcommittee. In 2005, she was the spokesperson for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital’s Math-a-Thon. But still, McKellar wanted to do more to push math among young teens. 

McKellar’s First Book is Titled Math Doesn’t Suck

In an effort to show middle school-aged girls to embrace a love of math, Danica McKellar penned her first book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail in 2008. The book explained math problems is easy-to-understand terms and makes math more relatable to pre-teens and young teens. Because the focus is on girls, the book also presents some tips for coping with middle school, dealing with boys and resolving conflicts with friends. The book was a New York Times bestseller and received numerous accolades and favorable reviews. McKellar said she wrote the book to oppose the commonly-held belief, or “damaging messages telling young girls that math and science aren’t for them.” 

She Wrote Six More Math Books

The success of Math Doesn’t Suck led McKellar to continue writing. She released Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss in late 2008. McKellar said that her goal was to “show girls that math is accessible and relevant and even a little glamorous.” Her later books include Hot X: Algebra Exposed! in 2010 and Girls Get Curves – Geometry Takes Shape in 2012 and Do Not Open This Math Book in 2018. She also wrote math books for younger audiences, beginning with Goodnight, Numbers in 2017 and continuing with Bathtime, Mathtime and Ten Little Butterflies, both in 2018. 

(Hallmark Channel)

McKellar Balances Being a Math Whiz with Acting

Danica McKellar continues to act. She starred in Tasmanian Devils with skater Apolo Ohno, a movie for the Syfy channel in 2012. She joined the cast of Dancing with the Stars in 2014, and the next year, she starred in Project MC2, a Netflix Original Series. She has also appeared in several Hallmark Channel movies. She has no intention of backing down from either acting or mathematics any time soon. 

Tags: danica mckellar, math wonder, actress

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.