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Encouraging American Girls to Embrace Math

  1. September 21, 2007
  2. Talk of the Nation: Science Friday
  3. NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO (NPR)
  4. http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/2007/Sep/hour2_092107.html

IRA FLATOW, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.

Excuse me. This hour, we’re talking about girls, women, and mathematics, and some surprising success that girls who love math have been enjoying lately. Survey say that U.S. students do poorly in math compared to their peers in other countries. But just last month, for the first time, a team of American girls went to China to compete in the 2007 China Girls Mathematical Olympiad. And one team member won a gold medal and tied for first place. Her teammates won a silver medal and three bronze - yea for them. How did that happen?

This hour, we’ll ask a member of the U.S. girls team as well as one of her coaches, who’s done pretty well herself in a few mathematics competitions like the International Mathematic Olympiad. And we’ll find out what the future holds for talented girls and women from the only woman mathematician, we believe, who’s now a college president.

But first, remember that Jimmy Buffet song called, “Math Sucks”? Well, my first guest has an answer for Jimmy. Danica McKellar is a Hollywood actress. She says math doesn’t suck. In fact, math and being a good math student are really cool. You might have thought Danica was very cool when she was on “The Wonder Years” and “The West Wing.” And on October 15th, you can catch her on “How I Met Your Mother.” But Danica also majored in Math at the UCLA, and she graduated summa cum laude, and has co-authored a paper on a proof that’s named after her. And as I say, she’s now written a book for girls: “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.” And she’s here with us.

Danica McKellar, welcome to Science Friday.

Ms. DANICA McKELLAR (Actress; Mathematician; Author, “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail”): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Did you have to hide your math knowledge?

Ms. McKELLAR: Do I have to hide it?

FLATOW: Yeah. Didn’t you have to make believe you would be too nerdy if people knew how good you were in math?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, I didn’t get really, really good at math until college. I mean, I was good at Math in high school too, but college was when I really made it my life.

FLATOW: And what changed? What made it part of your life then?

Ms. McKELLAR: I just – I guess I had an inherent love for it, which I got a chance to discover in college. I struggled like many, many students in middle school. I did not always love math. It used to terrify me.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: So, I know what that’s like.

FLATOW: You know…

Ms. McKELLAR: And there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

FLATOW: You know, when I ask mathematicians and scientists what changed their lives, most of them say there was a person, one person who turned them around – a teacher, a parent. Was that true in your case?

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely. There is a story that I tell in “Math Doesn’t Suck” about how a seventh grade teacher of mine really helped me in my moment of need. I was taking a quiz. I was flunking it. I had written nothing on the quiz. I remember this horrible sinking feeling like I’m going turn in a blank quiz? I had studied so hard, I really did try, and nothing looked familiar. Everybody turned in their quizzes, the bell rang, people were standing up, leaving the classroom - I couldn’t move. I was terrified.

And the teacher, Mrs. Jacobson, just looked at me and smiled, and she let me keep working on the quiz all throughout recess - the 15 minutes. And I don’t know why she reached out to me at that moment, but it really helped me. And I relaxed. I was able to answer some questions. And it was big turning point. She continued to make math fun, accessible, and not such a big deal, not such a life-or-death crisis.

FLATOW: And what made you then decide to write a book about all of this, “Math Doesn’t Suck”?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, after I graduated from UCLA in mathematics - I loved it but I missed acting so much I knew I was going to go back to acting. And you really can’t do both fulltime because there’s only so many hours in the day, and I wanted to keep up my math somehow. So, on my Web site danicamckellar.com, I started answering math questions.

FLATOW: Oh, really?

Ms. McKELLAR: I was answering fan mail anyway, and so people were asking about math, and I started answering questions. I started getting asked more questions. I created a math page for my Web site. And so for years and years, I answered math questions. And it was my way of keeping up my math hobby. Then, an article came out in the New York Times in 2005 about how, in between “The Wonder Years” and “The West Wing,” I co-authored a research paper in mathematics, and how unusual I was. And at that point, a literary agent in New York, Laura Nolan at the Creative Culture, called my manager and said, we think Danica is a great model, and she should write a math book.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: And I was like, oh, my goodness. That’s – why hadn’t I thought of that. I love that idea. And it’s just been a complete joy.

FLATOW: You’re still answering math questions online? You still have the section?

Ms. McKELLAR: Every now and then. I actually answer more questions directly to people when I have time.

FLATOW: Really?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. But mostly, my focus in terms of teaching math is now the book.

FLATOW: Now, in your book, you have a nice feature. Each chapter has something called Danica’s diary.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

FLATOW: And you give out personal little hints and tidbits in those sections. And one in particular sticks out that says, dumbing ourselves down for other people.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

FLATOW: And…

Ms. McKELLAR: I told stories about myself usually in middle school stories about how I struggled with math or struggled with self-esteem issues and just stuff that kids can relate to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If you want to relate to Danica and our other guests on math this hour, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Also, in “Second Life,” where you can find this in the science – in the little science fiction I have over there.

So, when did you realize? You said it took…

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, I don’t want to leave the dumbing ourselves down thing just quite yet.

FLATOW: Oh, no. Go right ahead.

Ms. McKELLAR: No. One thing I want to say is when I was doing a research for this book, I did a ton of surveys that were sent out to teenagers all throughout high schools in this country. And I just asked a few questions, because I wanted to have quotes throughout the book…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: …to see what kids were thinking about and talking about. What do you think of math? What did you use to think about math? What do you think about smart girls and what do you think about dumb girls? And overwhelmingly, I got the response: there are no dumb girls - they just pretend to be dumb. And this is from 12-year-olds.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. McKELLAR: I was floored. I mean, I went to an all-girls school. I probably was saved from some of this - the feeling that girls have. And I learned through all these surveys and talking to people and talking to girls and teachers that girls still believe they need to dumb themselves down to become appealing to boys?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Or to be considered cool?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: And this horrified me. So, I learned what an issue this really is. And so online, at mathdoesntsuck.com - because I got personality quizzes in the book.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Are you a mathaphobe…

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: …and fun things like that, because I like quizzes. And online, I put a quiz that says, you know, do you hide your smarts? So, its that issue of dumbing ourselves down.

Now, one of the worst things you can do in middle school is to be a showoff. And I’m completely aware of that because I learned that in surveys, too, and I remember that as well.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: She thinks she’s all that. Okay, this is death to a middle schooler, socially. So, I talked on the quiz about that balance between not hiding yourself and not dumbing yourself down, not being less than who you are, and yet also not flaunting it when you get an A, and not being like a showoff because nobody likes a showoff.

FLATOW: You found – and I found that the style that you wrote the book - the book is designed deliberately to appeal to girls…

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely.

FLATOW: …right? With sections like that.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. And it’s all about - you know, there’s some girls that love math, and that’s so great. But a lot of girls don’t, and I’m reaching out to the ones who would rather be reading a teen magazine than doing their math homework.

FLATOW: And you’re telling them how to do math in this book, right?

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely. Oh, I teach…

FLATOW: I mean, this is not just a book about your biography…

Ms. McKELLAR: Not at all.

FLATOW: …you’re teaching kids how to do math.

Ms. McKELLAR: Completely. And one of the things I did for the book was I researched by talking to middle school teachers, and I asked them what are the topics that are most confusing for middle school girls or middle school students in general? What are the things that are the biggest stumbling blocks, and the things that continue to haunt the kids in high school and beyond if they don’t get it now?

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Fractions.

FLATOW: Fractions. That was the first thing I was going to say.

Ms. McKELLAR: Fractions, but, like, not easy fractions. Like, when fractions get hard, you know, converting them to and from percents and - using fractions in word problems. Proportions and ratios and rates and things like that.

FLATOW: But you use a certain language to talk the vernacular with people…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

FLATOW: …with the girls. You don’t just say the math language, you teach that - you describe it in terms that girls would speak to each other.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. So, I’m teaching solid math concepts but in a conversational way, because I don’t know why math can’t be conversational and fun.

FLATOW: Why can’t it?

Ms. McKELLAR: I think it is.

FLATOW: Well, why can’t it be?

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

FLATOW: Well, why do you think? In your experience in school, why wasn’t it taught to you the way that you’re teaching it to other girls?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, Mrs. Jacobson, the seventh grade teacher, did do that. There are some teachers who do that, but they are few and far between. So for all the kids who don’t have those kinds of teachers, I want to offer this book as a way of showing girls math is relevant in your lives, and it can be fun, and it can be conversational, and all the rest of it.

FLATOW: Let’s go to Jeff in Flagstaff. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Welcome to - hi. Thanks. Go ahead.

JEFF: I wanted to - Danica know that I think women and science, and women and mathematics are extremely attractive. I found when I was in college that…

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you. Great. Awesome.

JEFF: I found that when I was in college, the smart women, to me, were the attractive ones.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes, of course. And you know what’s funny is though that so many girls don’t get to become that because in middle school, the belief is just the opposite.

JEFF: That’s true.

Ms. McKELLAR: If only they could hear you right now. Maybe they are. Some of them are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: I have one question for you. I have a degree in physics and a degree in astronomy, so I wanted to know what your favorite math class was in college.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, my favorite math class was the class called real analysis.

JEFF: Oh, really?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes. I love the abstract stuff. I understand you’re more applied, and that’s totally cool. What I love is I love – generally speaking, I love anything that has to do with infinity. I’ve always thought that was really neat that we could even have a handle on that somehow in math. And I love the idea that in analysis, you get to prove the theorems that you use in calculus, and so much of that has to do with infinity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thanks, Jeff, for calling.

JEFF: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Does your math interests leak out - especially you touched on one of my favorite subjects. And I think of infinity, I think of the universe. Does it leak out to physics or cosmology or any of those points that touch with mathematics?

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, I’m sure, in so many ways that even I haven’t discovered.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Math and sciences - there’s expansive. They touch so many different things, and math is the language of all the sciences. So math is glorified in these wonderful applications.

FLATOW: I can tell that you have trouble understanding why other people don’t like math and don’t see it the same way that you do.

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, actually, in middle school, I had such a hard time with it that I – I mean, I do remember. I’m not, you know, I relate to those middle school girls who are struggling because I struggled the same way. I used to cry when I got home. I’d be afraid to just try my homework. And my parents, I should just say, never put pressure on me like that. They were great. I put the pressure on myself and in what that’s like.

Speaking of parents, I do want to encourage all the parents listening to be involved in your kid’s education. It’s so important. It makes such a big difference, whether it’s…

FLATOW: But how do you be constructively involved without turning your kid off - alienating, nagging, that sort of thing?

Ms. McKELLAR: Right. No, that’s not what I mean. Have you done your homework? Have you done your homework?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: I mean, sure, you want to be in touch with them - done their homework or not.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: But I’m talking about reaching out to them in ways that – speaking to them, whether it’s this book “Math Doesn’t Suck,” or sometimes kids need help in the moment. And there’s a great on-demand tutoring service called tutor.com that I highly recommend. They’re also giving 75 minutes of free tutoring to anyone who buys “Math Doesn’t Suck.” It’s great to have that help right then if you don’t happen to, as a parent, understand the math your kid’s doing. You can refer them to this Web site.

The other thing is I want to encourage moms to not talk about not being able to do math, if that was the case for them. So many moms – yeah, Melanie is nodding over here – so many moms say to their girls, oh, I can never do math either. And guess what? Now, the girls feel somehow that they don’t have to be good at math. It’s like how if a mom is anorexic, chances are her daughter is going to have body issues as well. It’s almost unavoidable.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, we’re going to talk about the math for the rest of the hour with Danica McKellar who’s author of “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.” And it does tell you how to do that. Plus, we’re going to expand it…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …with other math people. We’re going to have some math, science Olympiad winners, coaches, and your calls - our number 1-800-989-8255. Maybe you can call in and tell us about your experience with math in grade school, grammar school - what problems you had, how you overcame them, what you would like to see. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.

We’re talking this hour about girls, women and mathematics. My guests are Danica McKellar, actress, a math education etiquette as she calls herself, an author of “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.”

And I’m going to bring on some other guests who’ll also join us and talk about math. My next guest is Jennifer Iglesias. She’s a senior at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. That’s a special school in Aurora, Illinois. She was a member of the U.S. girls’ team that traveled to China in August to compete in the 2007 Girls Mathematical Olympiad, and this is the first time American girls had entered. And she joins us from WNIJ, that’s public radio in DeKalb, Illinois. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. JENNIFER IGLESIAS (Member, 2007 U.S. Girls Team International Mathematics Olympiad; Senior at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

Melanie Matchett Wood is a doctoral student in math at Princeton, and she was one of the coaches for Jennifer’s class and her teammates who competed in the 2007 China Girls Olympic – Math Olympiad. And how did she get to do all that? Well, Ms. Wood was the first woman to make the U.S. International Math Olympiad team and she won two silver medals. And she’s here in our studio in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. MELANIE MATCHETT WOOD (Coach of the 2007 U.S. Girls Team, International Mathematics Olympiad; Graduate Student in Mathematics, Princeton University): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: I never did congratulate you on those medals, so…

Ms. WOOD: Thank you.

Ms. McKELLAR: I want – yeah, I want to congratulate both of them. Congratulations. That’s so amazing. That’s so exciting.

FLATOW: Really.

Ms. IGLESIAS: Thanks.

FLATOW: You’re welcome.

Our fourth guest is Dr. Maria Klawe. Dr. Klawe is a mathematician who talked with us two years ago about women in science when she was dean of engineering at Princeton. And now, she’s president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Klawe.

Dr. MARIA KLAWE (Mathematician; President of Harvey Mudd College): It’s great to be back.

FLATOW: Years ago - I can’t remember who it was - we had a mathematician who’s the only head of a mathematics department – only female head of a mathematics department in America, is that still true today? Are there more heads of math department’s women?

Dr. KLAWE: I think there are a few more, but I don’t think there are very many.

FLATOW: Yeah. That’s still a problem in mathematics.

Dr. KLAWE: Well, I would say it’s better in math than some other areas. I mean, math is one of the areas where girls and women have really made a lot of progress over the last 30 years or so.

FLATOW: Let me talk to you, Melanie, first. You’re a brave woman to take eight teenagers to China…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WOOD: It was an adventure.

FLATOW: But how did you coach Jenny and the other girls?

Ms. WOOD: Well, the story for taking this team of eight female students to China to compete in the Olympiad goes back many years. Zuming Feng, a coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad - and I wrote a proposal for the U.S. to participate in this competition because I thought it was so great that China had this opportunity for young women.

And so, over several years, through some wonderful sponsors, we were able to get funding for this program. And part of the program was that the eight girls were trained at a summer math program called Awesome Math, which is in Texas.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WOOD: And so the…

Ms. McKELLAR: Awesome Math?

Ms. WOOD: Awesome Math.

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s great. I have to know that.

Ms. WOOD: And my understanding is that the students who went to Awesome Math found the math pretty awesome.

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s great.

Ms. WOOD: And so that is very exciting.

FLATOW: Aptly named.

Ms. WOOD: Yes and…

Ms. McKELLAR: Is it still going on?

Ms. IGLESIAS: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: Yes. So…

Ms. IGLESIAS: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: …Awesome Math happens every summer.

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s great.

Ms. WOOD: And then for three weeks, the students have some pretty intense training before they headed directly off to China for some tourism. Since we’re going all the way to China, we thought it was – it great to show the girls to all of the sights and then also…

Ms. McKELLAR: You’ve seen the Great Wall?

Ms. WOOD: Yes, we climbed up the Great Wall.

Ms. McKELLAR: Did some counting of bricks and…

Ms. WOOD: It’s a good exercise.

FLATOW: Let me ask Jenny, how is she like. Jenny Iglesias, what did you think?

Ms. IGLESIAS: It was awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The word of the hour, I think. It’s…

Ms. McKELLAR: Awesome Math, awesome walls…

CONAN: How was the competition? How did you – what did you think of the competition?

Ms. IGLESIAS: It was a lot harder than I expected, but it was a lot of fun to go there and compete. It was so much fun to be around other girls doing Math as much as I liked it.

CONAN: Hmm. Now, your teammates won five medals, and the gold medal winner tied for first place with a Chinese girl. Were you disappointed that you didn’t come home with a medal?

Ms. IGLESIAS: A little, but hopefully, we’ll get the same sponsors we did last year and I’ll be able to go back and try again.

CONAN: How did you find the other competitors? Did you find that you matched up well with the other countries or that, you know, you did very well as a team?

Ms. IGLESIAS: I felt that I was close to the same level as the other girls. Some of the Chinese girls were really amazing, though. The standard of, like, education is so much higher over there and they worked so much harder.

Ms. McKELLAR: The value system, I think, is different there as well.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: It’s overall, right? I’m guessing. I don’t know that much about Chinese culture, but what was your experience? Did they seem like a culture of as much pop culture and reading teen magazines and all the stuffs that we see…

Ms. IGLESIAS: No. It was - had such a – they were all focused on learning, and, I mean, I stayed in - at a high school – we stayed at the high school connected to a college for the days we’re in the competition. And it seems like, I mean, there is a little bit of a pop culture, of course, like at the little store, but not nearly as much as we have here.

CONAN: Hmm. Dr. Klawe, girls in math changed over the years?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, I think it changed a lot from when I was a high school student and an undergraduate and then a PhD student in mathematics. It was really common when I was a high school student for teachers to say girls just can’t do math. And I was the best math student in my school, and that’s a reasonably large school. And so the math teachers would say to the boys, don’t you feel horrible that you’re being beaten by a girl?

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, my God.

Dr. KLAWE: And - yes. So, it’s interesting talking about China. I was giving a talk in China at the end of May and I was talking about how it’s really common if you’re a mathematician and you introduce yourself to someone - they ask what you’re do and you say I’m a mathematician, they say, oh, I was really horrible at math. It was my worst subject.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

Dr. KLAWE: And they’re proud of it. And I mentioned in China and just like there are about 500 people, and they just couldn’t believe it. They – it’s just so different in China, I mean, saying you’re bad at math is just like that’s shameful.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, let me go to the phones, because there are a lot of people who want to ask questions and share their experiences, and I think that may be the best way to go today. Everybody likes to talk and I’m glad to hear that.

Tina in Livonia, Michigan. Hi, Tina.

TINA (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

TINA: Hi. I just want to quickly tell my story. I was excellent at math all the way through high school, through calculus, AP Calculus. I started taking mathematics at the university, and my crisis came when I was no longer perfect at it anymore.

And I guess I just didn’t have a mentor to tell me that, you know, sometimes the stuff gets difficult and you need to work through it. My class that I took, it was a third year level university math class - had a professor who didn’t speak English very well. And when he finished through the proofs, I really just didn’t understand what was going on. And I assumed it was because I was too stupid now that I had hit my plateau, that I couldn’t go any farther, and I dropped the class. I never took another math and science class after that. I went on to majoring languages.

And I found out years later that there had been a guy in my class who had been at the exact same class at that same time, and what he had done is that he had – he’d had the same experiences. He also found it impenetrable. He dropped the class. Took it again with a different professor and he had - and at the same time had an M.A. or excuse me, a masters degree in engineering.

Ms. McKELLAR: I think – yeah, it seems like there, even despite your abilities in math, there was something in the back of your mind that was holding you back, right? There’s something at the back of your mind that said we don’t really belong here. And it’s almost been a fluke, right?

TINA: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: Okay. So when I graduated from high school – this is Danica talking - I scored a five on the AP Calculus exam. That was the hardest, you know, BC exam. And I graduated in the top 3 percent of my class. And yet, when I went to UCLA and I took a math class to fulfill a requirement, I never in a million years thought I’d become a math major.

I didn’t know how I was going to do in the class. I thought, my God, high school math was so hard. I don’t know how I’d survived college math. And if not me having gotten this five on the AP exam and done so well in my math classes in high school, then who are those college math classes for?

It was something at the back of my mind. And it’s got to be the messages the society tells us that math is not for girls. And it’s amazing even if you don’t have, as Maria did, teachers literally telling you you’re not supposed to be good at math, it still gets in there somehow.

Ms. WOOD: I think it’s extremely unfortunate problem in the math community that there’s an idea that part of being good at mathematics is topping it through and not ever needing help.

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Ms. WOOD: And because of that, the community - it doesn’t provide enough mentors to students. It doesn’t provide enough opportunities for students who are struggling to improve. There’s an idea that you either can do mathematics or you can’t…

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Ms. WOOD: …and then you ridden off. And that’s a huge thing that…

Ms. McKELLAR: It’s so wrong.

Ms. WOOD: …we need to change, especially as a country when we need more people…

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Ms. WOOD: …who excel in mathematics.

Ms. McKELLAR: They say math is black and white, right? Well, yeah, I guess it’s black and white in that there’s a right answer and all the other answers are wrong. But it’s not black and white in you either can or can’t do math.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Dr. Klawe, what do you think about stimulating more interest in math in girls?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, I think one of the most important things to realize is that how fast you can learn a mathematical concept has nothing to do with how good you are at math. And, you know, one of the things that is true in our culture, but not true in Asia, is that we believe that you’re either born being good at math or you’re not. It’s like there’s a math gene.

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Dr. KLAWE: And I think it’s incredibly important for people to realize just as if you practice basketball or some sport, you become better at it. It’s exactly that way for math. And I’m so happy about Danica’s book. And Danica, I’d heard all about you from Jennifer Chase…

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, wow.

Dr. KLAWE: …and so - and actually, I have a copy of your book. And I think it’s just great to have role models who look like normal, successful people who make it clear that they love mathematics. One of the reasons I’d love being at Harvey Mudd College is that everybody at Harvey Mudd College loves mathematics and you can, you know, like just walk into a room and say, I love mathematics and everyone says, yeah, I do, too. And (unintelligible) you’re so (unintelligible)…

Ms. WOOD: It sounds wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KLAWE: It’s just fabulous. And, you know, one of the things we’ve really been focusing on, like many other places, is trying to increase the percentage of female students. Mudd has only math, science and engineering. And so we had traditionally been down at about 20 percent students. And over the last 10 years, we - this last year, our incoming class was 43 percent female, actually, 43.5.

Ms. McKELLAR: Wow.

Dr. KLAWE: And it’s just incredible. There’re all these women who love mathematics.

Ms. McKELLAR: Now, how many of them have that same doubt in the back of their mind, is the question.

Dr. KLAWE: Every single one of them.

Ms. McKELLAR: Okay. You see?

Dr. KLAWE: You know, that’s…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yup.

Dr. KLAWE: …that’s the thing that is so hard to get pass, because the first time…

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, you know, it’s hard that - yeah, it’s hard because - and correct me if I’m wrong - but because the problem starts so young, it starts in middle school, maybe even before that, right?

FLATOW: Does it start because boys and girls are in the same class - you hear this in debates over education?

Ms. McKELLAR: I went to an all-girls school and I had the same thing. Mm-hmm.

Ms. IGLESIAS: Yeah.

FLATOW: You did? I mean, you know, you hear the argument being of - the girls are afraid to say anything because it look like they know something. With the boys, you know…

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, girls are afraid of being not polite anyway. But yes, I do think it’s easier for them. It was certainly, I think, easier for me being in an all-girls school.

But, yeah, I talked about that, too, in “Math Doesn’t Suck…”

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: …that girls tend to try to be polite and they don’t want to raise their hand in class, and that like you were saying, they only - they don’t ask for help enough because they don’t believe they’re supposed to.

Ms. WOOD: I think at the middle and high school ages as well, you see a lot of boys getting very competitive and very forward. And so they’re raising their hands more, they’re speaking out more in classes, and there is an idea that the people who are louder are better in mathematics, and you feel kind of like, oh, these people are loud and they were fast in math class, so that must mean I’m not one of them. And that’s – that doesn’t, you know, as Maria was saying that they’re getting a concept more quickly…

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Ms. WOOD: …doesn’t have anything to do with understanding about it…

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s right.

Ms. WOOD: …that same thing can be happening in classes that you might not be shouting out the answer and you might not be the first one to think of it, but that doesn’t mean you might not be the best math student in your class.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

FLATOW: We’re talking about math this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. We are surrounded by really smart people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Much brainier than I am, with Danica McKellar, author of “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math.” Also, Jennifer Iglesias, she’s a member of the U.S. girls’ team that traveled to China in the 2007 Girls Mathematical Olympiad; Melanie Matchett Wood, who is coach on that team and she’s also the first woman to make the U.S. International Math Olympiad and she won the two silver medals; and also with us is Dr. Maria Klawe. She’s a mathematician who talked with us a couple of years ago and she’s now president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255, to the phones. Charlotte(ph) in - where you calling from, Charlotte? Is or - or is it, oh, I’m sorry it’s Rabby(ph) in Charlotte, I’m sorry. Is that right?

MARLIN(ph) (Caller): Hello?

FLATOW: Hi there.

MARLIN: This is Marlin. I’m calling from Charlotte…

FLATOW: Thank you.

MARLIN: …I’m a little excited…

FLATOW: I’ll get it right.

MARLIN: …good afternoon to everyone.

FLATOW: Yes.

MARLIN: I have a 9-year-old daughter. So she’s not at a middle school level yet. However, you know, I want to be proactive in how I am having her experience math…

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s good.

MARLIN: …because right now, I noticed it in third grade and it’s the same thing in fourth grade, where it seems that they come home with a new concept every day, that I’m not quite sure how much time is being spent developing it during the day. So, I feel like I am actually reteaching it every night. And I want to be able – if I have to do that, I want to be able to incorporate concepts that, as Danica was saying, that she understand that math is a part of her every day life…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

MARLIN: …so just any thoughts on that just…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

MARLIN: …to help out this mom?

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, if you read “Math Doesn’t Suck,” there’s a lot of examples that relate to everyday life, and I have a feeling that because schools tend to be trying to introduce subjects earlier and earlier. You know, the fraction section starts off be as it can gets advanced. She might only be able to relate to the early fraction stuff in the book, but there’s a lot of ruler examples in all of it.

So I encourage you to pick up the book and just see some of the fun, every day scenarios that are in the book, and also, sort of in a conversational manner in which I teach it. I - they’re – kids are expected to learn so much now so quickly and that’s why I just want to be able to slow it down a little so the chapters are taught in a very slow conversational fun kind of relaxed way because otherwise, kids are going to spin out of control.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for calling. Good luck to you.

MARLIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: It is truly unique, I guess, as a redundant way of saying it. But it’s a truly a unique book, “Math Doesn’t Suck” and it really does give lessons and how to look at mathematics, how to do a lot of these tough things you do - algebra and the fractions, but you also have a horoscope section in the book. Why do you have…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: …a horoscope section? Is that just an enticement to open the book or - yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: It’s partially, absolutely. I modeled the book after a teen magazine absolutely to make girls want to open the book, that’s the first step. Open it. The math horoscope tells girls, you know, how to, how they approach math based on their astrological sign. I’ve also got quizzes, personality quizzes - not math quizzes but quizzes like are you a mathaphobe…

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: …you know? Do you have a trouble focusing?

FLATOW: Well, then - and opening the book doesn’t seem to be the problem with girls studying math. It’s staying, keeping the book open. I mean, girls seem to be…

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s the next step.

FLATOW: …naturally - I mean, in general about studying math, right?

Ms. McKELLAR: Yup. Yes, but I think you’d find that girls don’t like opening the book in the first place.

Ms. WOOD: Yeah. I think opening the book is a huge problem. I know - you know, tons of girls would never think of opening a math book for fun as an extracurricular reading.

Ms. McKELLAR: They’d even avoid – right.

Ms. WOOD: Who want to open this book? You know, this looks like Seventeen magazine, you know? This could be something fun to read.

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

FLATOW: But you were interested in math without this book?

Ms. WOOD: Oh.

Ms. McKELLAR: There were some.

Ms. WOOD: Certainly.

FLATOW: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: I mean, you know, people always say, well, you know why do I think that so many girls have trouble doing math, which is a tricky question for me because I didn’t have as much trouble. But if you look at the few women who are doing mathematics especially at a professional level, you realize that there are huge numbers that we need to reach out to.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: And this book doesn’t have to be for every girl. But when you look…

Ms. McKELLAR: Right. Yes. But the girls who also like that…

Ms. WOOD: …at the number of girls that are being missed…

FLATOW: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: …and this - if this book can reach them, that’s amazing.

FLATOW: All right. We’re going to take a break and come back more and talk lots more with Danica McKellar, author of “Math Doesn’t Suck.” Also with our - mathematic geniuses we have here to – just to blow me away. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.

We’re talking this hour about the girls, women in mathematics. How well do they add up? If you have trouble with math, here’s your chance to share that experience with my guest, Danica McKellar, an actress, a mathematician, author of “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.” Also with us is Jennifer Iglesias, who’s a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois; Melanie Matchett Wood, the coach for the American girls’ team at the 2007 China Girls Math Olympiad, which Jennifer Iglesias was a competitor; and Dr. Maria Klawe is a mathematician and president of Harvey Mudd school - Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. We already have covered the waterfront. I – we were talking during the break about the book “Math Doesn’t Suck” and I was mentioning, Danica, that this – there should be a teacher’s companion edition of this. I mean, it’s really a textbook, but done so well, you know, in…

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you.

FLATOW: …an every day vernacular that maybe teachers should, you know, you ever think about writing a teacher’s edition of this and then you could use it in school.

Ms. McKELLAR: Well, I’ve actually had quite a few teachers e-mail me, telling me that they’re using these concepts and some of the tips and tricks in their classroom. It’s been extraordinary. I get e-mails not only for girls saying that they’re – from girls saying that they’ve gone from Cs to As, and from parents saying that thank you so much. My daughter’s actually interested in math now for the first time ever, but teachers as well.

FLATOW: Jennifer Iglesias, what were your teachers like?

Ms. IGLESIAS: My teachers were all very supportive all the way through. Starting in, like, third grade, my teachers started giving me extra stuff to do because I just kept going through the stuff. And then in middle school, I had an awesome math coach who really, like, inspired me and had me - I mean, he had me working hours a day. And it was so much fun training for – I was training for MATHCOUNTS at the time, but I learned so much and it was so much fun.

FLATOW: Is the training – and I’ll ask both of you, the coach and the student – is the training just like a sport? Is it that kind of training that you go through? Is it mental and physical?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WOOD: Definitely. It’s – I mean, there…

Ms. McKELLAR: Do some push-ups.

Ms. WOOD: Well, they had, as extracurricular activity, at the competition in China a dance aerobics competition in the afternoon…

Ms. IGLESIAS: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: …which I think is a good blend with the mathematics to help you work off some of that stress that has been building while you sit for four hours. The girls took two days of exams. Each day, they had four hours…

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. WOOD: …for the exam. And so you can imagine that the pressure can build up, and it’s nice to run around a little bit after that.

FLATOW: Jennifer, is it mentally stressful? All this training and the competition?

Ms. IGLESIAS: I actually found it to be a lot of fun. I was stressed out a bit because I felt like I do not know the concepts as well as the other girls, but I think I caught up pretty quickly. But it was – I didn’t feel that much stress on me because I don’t know, I was doing something that was fun and I enjoyed it and I was out there just to have fun.

FLATOW: Dr. Klawe, how do we take all this and expand it to other girls? I mean, how we, you know?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, I’d say the first thing is that we need more math teachers in middle school and high school who, first of all, believe that girls can be great at math, and secondly, know how to inspire both girls and boys. And one of the biggest problems we’re facing right now is that there - in most public schools, the people who are teaching math, they didn’t major in math, they probably didn’t minor in math, and they don’t love math themselves.

And so I think we need to find ways to get more people who are really passionate about mathematics and were passionate about making it attractive to everyone: girls, boys, unrepresented minorities, whoever, and making it relevant to them and getting them into the schools.

And I want to briefly mention a couple of groups that I think have done a lot in terms of making mathematics just more visible. The first one is the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, and they were the people who managed to raise the funds to send the team, the girls’ team, to China. And Jennifer, I know you’re hoping to go again next year and I’m hoping that MSRI, as it’s often called, will manage to fundraise again in order to send you. And Melanie, I’m hoping you’re going to go be coach again, the girls…

FLATOW: Did the girls get invited to the White House? The winners? Anybody?

Dr. KLAWE: No.

Ms. IGLESIAS: No.

Ms. WOOD: No. Not as far as we know.

Ms. IGLESIAS: We haven’t seen our invitation, yeah.

FLATOW: We have all the football players get invited.

Ms. WOOD: Yeah. We’re checking them out.

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah. They should be invited. Yeah. The other group I was going to talk about is an organization called Math for America that’s in New York City that recruits people who really love mathematics and essentially gives - puts them to their teaching credentials and then places in public schools in New York, and it’s something we’re trying to extend to a number of other cities including Los Angeles right now.

From my perspective, every time we have somebody like particularly Danica, but, you know, any person whose visible, saying mathematics is really fun, it’s exciting, it’s important, it makes you smarter, it makes you feel good about life that’s just wonderful. And you know, it’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about Danica’s book and…

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, thank you.

Dr. KLAWE: …Danica, I plan to get you to come out to Harvey Mudd College so you can be with all these other math lovers.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, that sounds great.

FLATOW: Yeah, well, now you are the Carl Sagan of math now, so to speak.

Ms. McKELLAR: Carl Sagan. I like that.

FLATOW: You know, I mean, you are the…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …you are the visible person who speaks out for all girls and math.

Ms. McKELLAR: If I can get more and more girls to say math doesn’t suck, I’ll be happy.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, and that, I guess, is – it’s not going to be your full- time, you are still an actress and appearing in television. Where are you going to be seen next?

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, I’m going to be on a show called “How I Met Your Mother” on October 15th. It’s just one episode, but it’s a pretty funny episode.

FLATOW: What do you think of “Numbers”? Do you watch “Numbers” on (unintelligible)?

Ms. McKELLAR: I do like that show. Yes.

FLATOW: How can you bring math and how – into other shows like that? Have you ever thought about that, working math into some of the more popular TV shows?

Ms. McKELLAR: I’ve thought about the fact that that’s a good idea.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: I haven’t had time to, like, figure out how but…

FLATOW: It’s a tough nut to crack.

Ms. McKELLAR: …there’s way. I mean, “Numbers” is a great start. It’s a show where numbers and math are used to solve crimes. It’s kind of sexy and fun.

Dr. KLAWE: I saw a wonderful episode on – it’s on the first year of “West Wing,” where the president is telling his daughter who’s just started college. He’s upset that she’s not taking any math courses. And she’s going, well, I don’t have to anymore because I’m not in high school, and I can take what I really like.

And then, it turns out that the head of Federal Reserve or something like that is opening and he asked her if she wants the job, and she said, oh, yeah, I’d like. And he goes, no way, you can’t do that. You need math to have that kind of job. And it was just, you know, like it was just such a perfect example of, you know, somebody - a powerful influence saying math is really important. And so, I think, we need to…

Ms. McKELLAR: And talk to the writer. Yeah.

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah.

Ms. McKELLAR: He’s brilliant.

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah. Is that where it came from? I’ve been trying to figure out who was responsible for that because it’s just a great conversation.

FLATOW: Well, you need more leaders to step up and say I’m going to do this, you know? I’m going to be the role model.

Ms. McKELLAR: If just people sort of come out in the open and not be afraid of all the bad P.R. that math have, and not – don’t be afraid that people are going to think that you’re a nerd just because you like math because that’s what holds a lot of people back.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s got to Peter in Salt Lake. Hi, Peter.

PETER (Caller): Hello. Do you have an opinion as to why some students may have great difficulty with algebra but find that geometry to be extremely easy?

Ms. McKELLAR: It seems to be two different parts of the brain. Don’t you agree, Melanie?

FLATOW: Thanks, Peter.

Ms. WOOD: Well, I think, you know, there are a lot of different kinds of math. And, actually, I personally, you know, one of the big kinds of math you see in high school is calculus.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: And I personally don’t like calculus very much at all.

Ms. McKELLAR: Really?

Ms. WOOD: And if that were, you know…

Ms. McKELLAR: I do.

Ms. WOOD: …you know – see? So we can both love math and there are lots of different kinds.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. It’s true.

Dr. KLAWER: And I love calculus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: My daughter is studying to be an accountant, and she’s – she just swam through calculus. And I said to her, you know, what do you like about accounting? She says I love to crunch numbers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: Hey, you know what?

FLATOW: So, you know, I said, okay…

FLATOW: Everybody…

Ms. WOOD: There’s a lot of different kinds of mathematics, a lot of different ways to be a mathematician…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: …a lot of different kinds of mathematical thinking.

Ms. McKELLAR: A lot more jobs that use math than people realize. I mean, a lot…

Dr. KLAWE: Absolutely.

Ms. McKELLAR: …like the “West Wing” example.

Ms. WOOD: And so if you, you know, if you love geometry but you hate algebra, don’t give up on math because there are huge fields of mathematics that, you know, follow on in the direction of the geometry that you learned in high school.

Ms. McKELLAR: Absolutely.

Ms. WOOD: And so you can still be a mathematician even if you hated algebra.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

Dr. KLAWE: I think that’s a really great point because often, you know when I meet somebody who doesn’t like mathematics, my response is you had a bad teacher at some point…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yup.

Dr. KLAWE: …and, you know, often people once they had a math course that they find difficult, then they assume that’s it. It’s over. And you can easily have trouble with one area of math and be absolutely fabulous in other areas.

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s right.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s see who’s up – Doug(ph) in Tallahassee. Hi, Doug.

DOUG (Caller): Hi, guys. I have a book recommendation and I think it’s for Danica. It’s called “Thomas Gray: Philosopher Cat.” It was prompted by the - her affection for infinity. And in this book, you experience it but not mathematically, per se. It’s about a cat that stumbles onto an Oxford professor’s desk - he teaches math - or Cambridge rather, and helps him solve the square root of 17…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: It sounds so cute.

DOUG: …the mystery of the Greeks, by where he lays his tail early on. But later on, in discussing the cat’s on reminiscence is about its mother’s child was aboard a ship, that’s when you experience the infinite by her description of something…

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, sounds cute.

DOUG: It’s a non-math book.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

DOUG: You can experience infinity, and it’s good for kids and for adults. It’s written by Philip Jay Davis of Brown University.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Doug.

Ms. McKELLAR: All right. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You know, a lot of times, we hear that people who are good at math are also good at music. Do you find that in your own lives at all?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, I hope…

Ms. McKELLAR: What about you?

Dr. KLAWE: I have one for you, and that’s that a lot of women who are good at math are also good at art, and that seems to be a much stronger connection for women that it is for men. And I’ve been quite surprised by that. I’m a very serious artist, and I’ve been amazed at how women mathematicians or women computer scientists are also artists.

Ms. McKELLAR: Do you mean - what do you mean artist in a really general term or specific, like, painter?

Dr. KLAWE: Visual art…

Ms. McKELLAR: Okay.

Dr. KLAWE: …is really what I’m talking about. And I mean, when I go to conferences, I tend to take my paints with me and I’ll paint at talks, and so - and I’ll have all these women come over and say, oh, this is so great. I love to paint, too. I didn’t know there were any other women mathematicians who like to paint.

FLATOW: Well, I see Melanie shaking her head.

Ms. WOOD: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it but, as you say that, it strikes tons of examples in my mind. And the example is when I think of the mathematician musician, I imagine a boy playing the violin…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

Dr. KLAWE: Right.

Ms. WOOD: …and so, you know, there are a lot of people who do that, but there are, you know, other kinds…

Ms. McKELLAR: Because I’m not particularly musically gifted.

Ms. WOOD: I have no musical talent whatsoever.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, you know, actually the funny thing – my boyfriend is a composer and he had to take algebra five times. So we always joke that music and math came together for us and that we found each other.

FLATOW: Well, it’s obvious he wasn’t cheating, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Jennifer, are you mathematically or musically inclined or…

Ms. McKELLAR: She’s mathematically inclined.

FLATOW: I mean, artistically inclined, boy, Friday afternoon.

Let me remind everybody this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Sorry, Jennifer, to step on your answer that’s why I ask you the question.

Ms. IGLESIAS: I played trombone for a couple of years, but I don’t think I had that much talent with it. And I got in trouble once for drawing a really bad circle on the board. So I don’t think I’m very artistically inclined.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKELLAR: But they don’t always have to go together.

Dr. KALWE: So what do you like?

Ms. McKELLAR: Maybe people would not…

Dr. KALWE: So Jennifer…

Ms. McKELLAR: …remark on it because they’re so surprised when it does happen.

Ms. IGLESIAS: I like …

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah. I was going to ask you what else you like.

Ms. IGLESIAS: I like running. I do cross-country, yeah, and I can ride a unicycle, which is pretty…

Dr. KLAWE: That’s cool. You need to come to Harvey Mudd College. We have got a lot of unicycle riders here.

Ms. IGLESIAS: Really?

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah, a whole dorm of them.

Ms. WOOD: I think one problem for mathematics is that there are so many stereotypes about what it means to be…

Dr. KLAWE: Yes.

Ms. WOOD: …a mathematician.

Ms. McKELLAR: That’s true.

Ms. WOOD: And, you don’t have a stereotype that a cross-country runner is going to be a good mathematician but, you know, they can be…

Ms. McKELLAR: Sure, why not?

Ms. WOOD: …and so I think if we break down some of those stereotypes, we can get a lot more people to do mathematics and to love mathematics.

FLATOW: Are there any good movies? I mean, there was “A Beautiful Mind” movie. Did you see that movie?

Ms. WOOD: Yes, I did see that movie.

FLATOW: Did you like that movie?

Ms. WOOD: I like that movie, and I, you know, I also like “Proof,” which I saw several times in the theater and, you know, and also the movie version. But a problem with both of those is like we’re saying mathematicians is kind of crazy.

Ms. McKELLAR: Crazy. They’ve lost their mind.

Ms. WOOD: Right.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yes.

Dr. KLAWE: So what about “Good Will Hunting?” What do you think about that?

Ms. McKELLAR: He wasn’t as crazy. He was just, like, sort of a rebel.

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: I do like the image that you can be a sort of up star.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: You can be the underdog mathematician. You don’t have to have gone to the best schools and have the best training. I’d like that image.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: Too bad he wasn’t a woman but…

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Dr. KLAWE: Exactly.

FLATOW: Does the name…

Dr. KLAWE: So here’s…

FLATOW: No, go ahead. I’m sorry.

Dr. KLAWE: Well, I was just going to ask for Melanie and Danica and Jennifer, I mean one of the things that I’m pretty depressed about right now is I’m very, I mean, things have really change for women in mathematics. We’re at about 30 percent of the PhDs and mathematics is going to women now. But the opposite things seems have been happening for computer science and that the percentage of females who are majoring computer science at the undergraduate level under the graduate level had been - has been declining.

And what – I was just wondering if you have any sort of thoughts about that. I mean, we seemed to be much more successful in promoting math to girls than promoting computer science.

Ms. McKELLAR: It probably has to do with the stigma attached to it. Again, the computer nerd, right?

Ms. WOOD: I think there’s a big image…

Dr. KLAWE: That’s what I think…

Ms. WOOD: …that you know, on your computer playing “Warcrafts” or…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: …and that’s what computer science is. I mean, I think the image problem is even harder.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah. I think it probably is, and it’s – that’s the influence you see. Like, I guess, what you’re saying is that it got better for a while, now it’s getting worse, right?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, no, actually it started out being fairly good. About 35 percent of the undergraduate majors in computer science when computer science became a discipline for female. And, apparently, that’s partly because people thought it involved typing and women were known to be good at typing.

Ms. McKELLAR: Oh, my goodness.

Dr. KLAWE: But…

Ms. McKELLAR: It’s amazing how stereotypes play into everything.

FLATOW: I just have…

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah, isn’t weird?

FLATOW: We have about a – less than a minute left. Left me ask, are you worried that there are a more women abroad who are studying math and being competitive for jobs than you are? Is there a concern there?

Dr. KLAWE: I’m worried…

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

Dr. KLAWE: …that there more women and men…

Ms. McKELLAR: Right.

Dr. KLAWE: …studying math and engineering abroad than there are here, and I think that’s really dangerous for the future of the U.S.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah, and I think it speaks to, again, the pop culture that’s so, you know, I mean, it’s just omnipresent here in this country that might not be such a big deal in other countries, part of why “Math Doesn’t Suck,” I want to tell girls, look, you can do both. You don’t have to turn your back on the fun stuff, but be smart too.

Ms. WOOD: One thing that’s exciting about the number of women we see studying math in other countries is it shows that’s there’s absolutely nothing to these ideas of genetics…

Ms. McKELLAR: Biological. Absolutely.

Ms. WOOD: Yeah…

Dr. KLAWE: Aptitude…

Ms. WOOD: …I mean it shows that the effects are cultural.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

Ms. WOOD: And so maybe we can do something about it.

FLATOW: All right. And that’s the last word in this, a good word to end on. I want to thank all my guests this hour. Danica McKellar, who is an actress, who lives in Los Angeles, as well as author of “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.” A really excellent book. I recommend it to you, if you want to learn a little bit about math and, as you said, as an instruction; Jennifer Iglesias is a senior at Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois; Melanie Matchett Wood is doctorate student of math at Princeton University; and Dr. Maria Klawe is a mathematician and president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

Thank you all for…

Ms. McKELLAR: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: …a delightful hour.

Dr. KLAWE: Thank you.

Ms. WOOD: Wonderful. This is a lot of fun.

Ms. McKELLAR: Yeah.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend. We’ll see you next week. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.