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Danica McKellar on the Benefits of Struggling in Math

Photos: Courtesy of ©2015 Crown Media United States, LLC/Photographer: Katie Yiu

We ask the actress and mathematics writer about her transition from child stardom and what advice she has for future women in STEM.

Acting was your first love. Was being an actress always your end goal?

If you look at my heavily decorated notebooks from school, you’ll notice I had this dual love of performing and using my brain. In college, my plan was to be a film major. I took multi-V calculus, but I didn’t think I was going to be good at it. Even though I’d graduated from a difficult prep school and received a 5 on my AP exam, I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle college math because I didn’t look the part. I didn’t fit my own preconceived notion of who would be good at college math, because the class was mostly guys. However, I ended up receiving the highest score in the class on my first midterm. After that, I was hooked and was redefining myself.

Child stars can struggle because our identity is often wrapped up in the character we play. When we leave that role, we wonder “What do I have to offer now?” Math filled that void. I went back to acting, and simultaneously have been writing mathematics books. Balancing my two passions shows me you can really do it all.

The National Math & Science Initiative seeks to advance STEM education to ensure all students, especially those furthest from opportunity, thrive and reach their highest potential as problem solvers and lifelong learners

Why do you think math is so daunting to so many women? Looking back, what changes do you think have occurred between when you were a young girl and now?

Girls’ and boys’ brains develop in different ways and at different times. Generally speaking, boys develop logical problem solving early, while girls develop reading and language skills earlier. By around 6th grade, it evens out and either side catches up. So, while boys might be better sooner at math, it doesn’t mean they are forever better. We, as parents, try to decide what our kids are going to be, and the stigmas begin way too early. We condition girls to believe that they aren’t good at math because we give up on them way too soon. Let the learning process happen naturally and slowly, and show them great role models across all fields. When their skills are developed, they’ll be perfectly set up to pursue their passion without negative self-perception.

What is a piece of advice you have for the next generation of women in STEM?

Struggling in math is good. Many kids have the perception that they are born good at math or bad at math, but this isn’t true at all. Struggling in math is good and it makes you stronger. You may think you can’t do something initially, but when you stick it out and solve it, that experience is invaluable. It teaches your brain that no matter what obstacle comes at you, whether a problem in math or in life, you can tackle it in the end, even if it seems impossible to begin with. That experience builds fortitude and strength. To struggle in math is one of the greatest gifts math can give to your future.

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