Maybe 'Girly Math' Isn't Such a Bad Idea

Illustration for article titled Maybe Girly Math Isnt Such a Bad Idea

Winnie Cooper — I mean Danica McKellar, sorry — has a new book out called Girls Get Curves, a followup to her first girly arithmetic book, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss. Girls Get Curves tackles geometry, and, as in Kiss My Math, McKellar gives math a peppy, slightly ditzy makeover by coming up with word problems that include barbies, puppies, and broken nails. For example, this is how she explains why geometry is useful:

Look around- we live in a world of angles and curves. Geometry is responsible for the shape of the house you live in, the cars on the road, the shoes on your feet, and even the book in your hands. Diamond rings wouldn't be nearly so sparkly without the study of angles, and your favorite dress wouldn't fit nearly as well without the science of curves. But geometry does more than help us to master the physical world. Doing geometry- especially proofs- trains the logic center in our brains. And logic helps us stay clear and focused, which is helpful in all parts of life!

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Ohh, geometry is like the diamond ring I hope to receive one day from a special someone! Now I'm ready to tackle that proof!

"Math is a language, and it needs translation, and so I translate the math in terms that girls are thinking about, like popularity and boys and just things that are fun to read about," McKellar told the Today show. "I wrote a book that I wish I'd had when I was 12 and 13 years old."

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Although almost all of the examples in her excerpt make adult me groan — like the primer on conditional statements that starts with, "Let's say your best friend is planning to ask your latest crush to the dance, and it's making you crazy..." — I think she's 100% right about the language barrier. Math is a language, and, at least in my experience, many math books and study plans are geared towards boys, written in a language that's more difficult for girls to connect with.

When I was younger, my dad used to help me with my geometry homework by rewriting word problems so I could more easily understand them/I'd have more fun. I couldn't remember the exact analogies he used, so I gave him a call. "I would try and come up with really ridiculous scenarios to make you laugh," he said. "Like, there's a crack dealer in the neighborhood that needs to make a profit before his boss breaks his legs. How much crack does he have to sell to the kids at the local elementary school?"

I don't think I would've liked McKellar's style (clearly, I had a darker sense of humor) but if her books resonate with younger girls and help them get interested in math at a younger age, they're more likely to move on to more complicated branches of mathematics — upon which they'll surely ditch the fluffiness — and that seems like a real positive.

[Science Friday]

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DISCUSSION

ThrewASpannerDarkly
ThrewASpannerDarkly

Kind of torn on this one...I think it would work just as well to write math books that are geared toward girls without making everything about "your crush" or diamond rings. Hard to tell just how stereotypically girly the whole thing is without having read more excerpts.

However, as someone who was actually excellent at math in elementary and got progressively crappier at it during high school, I can appreciate just how much of an impact psychological factors have on a person's ability to 'do the math', especially if you happen to be female. Apart from the obvious vicious circle of failing at something, becoming scared of more failure, thus failing even more, etc., I think the things that spelled my mathematical doom were

a) the utter brain-imploding dryness of how it was presented/explained and

b) in 9 years of high school (I'm in Europe), I never had a single math class taught by a woman, and boys did pretty much rule the classroom in all things science. The sexist attitude held by many of our teachers in the sciences (I had a dozen over the years, one was female) was mostly a subtle presence in the background, but sometimes it was glaringly and hurtfully apparent, and the bad grades I and many other girls got didn't exactly make us feel like this was something we could change or that was even unjustified. I think everyone knows the impact a lack of confidence in one's own abilities can have—and there have been studies that indicate that mere awareness of stereotypes/statistics linking one's own demographic to worse performance at a given task is already enough to lead to a worse performance. The stereotypes we're exposed to are absorbed into our subconscious and _then we begin to fulfill them_. I think it's called stereotype susceptibility, and it's one of the nastiest effects among the many nasty effects stereotypes can have. For this reason, 'Go out and prove them all wrong!' is sometimes just way easier said than done.

I know I wasn't the only girl whose main ambition became staying under the teacher's radar and somehow getting through class without dying of boredom/frustration—as opposed to, say, asking questions about things we didn't understand. Fear of stereotyping was a big factor here, I think. I almost broke out in tears during a driving lesson when I stalled the engine and saw these two men at the bus stop exchanging a knowing, smug glance and grinning my way. Thing is, I might not have stalled in the first place if I hadn't been subconsciously aware of their eyes on me and worried about just that.

All that having been said, I was also a lazy git during my HS years who succeeded in other subjects with little to no effort, so I guess I could have helped matters by doing my homework more diligently.

Nevertheless, if more math problems had been about fun stuff (hey, crack dealers and skateboarding hedgehogs? Sure, why not) instead of gray, abstract shapes or those blasted converging trains, that might have helped (seriously, who needs those train questions in real life? Apart from Doc Brown maybe, if the time machine train needed a collision to work). Which is why Winnie Cooper may really be doing girls a solid here, at least in some respects. Pointing out just how much depends on math in everyday life can really make a change. I also like 'sidebar' information, such as the occasional anecdote about ancient Greek mathematicians, or examples of how math has evolved over time...math, more than any other subject, seems to be such a dreadfully anonymous, faceless affair, and you never learn how this 'language' was developed in the first place.

For those of you who would like a less gendered book to help a youngin unearth those buried math powers, I can absolutely recommend "The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure" by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. It's a novel for ages 10+ about a math-hating boy (they exist!) who dreams his way to a better understanding of the Fibonacci sequence and other magic numbers.