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Topic: Mathematics, the makeover
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Mathematics, the makeover
Posted: Oct 4, 2010 6:09 PM
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From The Independent UK], Sunday, October 3, 2010. See
- out thanks to Douglas Rogers for bringing this article to our
attention, via David Kirshner.
Mathematics, the makeover

Sums, it seems, are hot. Arithmatic rocks. A sexy band of number
crunchers is taking maths away from the geeks and frumps

By Susie Mesure

It has long vied with physics for the dubious honour of having the
worst image on the curriculum. But that was before stars such as the
former Wonder Years actress Danica McKellar stepped in to give maths
a makeover.

The actress turned mathematician, who is best known for playing
Winnie Cooper in the hit US television show, has made it her mission
to sex up maths with a series of books aimed at convincing girls that
the subject isn't just for geeks. As the raunchy cover of her latest
how-to guide - Hot X: Algebra Exposed - makes clear, being a maths
whiz doesn't make you a frump.

Penguin, which has just released McKellar's first book, Maths Doesn't
Suck, in the UK, thinks her approach will revolutionise the way girls
look at the subject. It plans to publish the author's two other
books, which have both made The New York Times's bestseller list.

McKellar said she wanted to "break stereotypes... [that have] trained
girls from a young age to believe that maths is too hard, too boring
and just for boys, and that if they are smart, they can't be popular
or beautiful," while making maths "more fun to learn". She said
teaching maths in a "non-mathsy" context - her books are based on
teen magazines and use examples intended to capture girls' interest,
from crushes on boys to lipstick - attracted the "most mathsphobic
girls and helped them to succeed".

The actress, who has had a paper published in the esteemed Journal of
Physics which proved a theorem on magnetism, joins a host of big
names who have helped to boost the subject's appeal. They include the
actress Natalie Portman, who has guest-edited the teenage maths
magazine Scholastic Math as well as gracing its cover. The
Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz has also done her bit by starring as
Hypatia, the fourth-century Greek mathematician and astronomer, in
the 2009 film Agora. Simon Singh, who unpicked Fermat's last theorem
to great acclaim in a bestselling book, and Marcus du Sautoy, the
populist Oxford University mathematician, are also credited with
inspiring more students to study maths.

But Mary Wimbury, director of the UK Mathematics Trust, said girls
still needed encouraging by the likes of McKellar because they were
"easily put off". She added: "We still need to get over the attitude
that women can never do maths. There can be a perception that it's
quite a geeky thing to do. Plus all the big names are still male, so
it's good to have Danica to challenge the stereotypes."

Only 40.6 per cent of students who sat maths A-level last summer were
female, compared with the 59.4 per cent of males who took the exam.
The proportion was worse for further mathematics, where 31.9 per cent
were female and 68.1 per cent male. And the low take-up of A-level
maths feeds through into higher study, where 39 per cent of maths
undergraduates are women.

Rob Eastaway, who runs Maths Inspiration, which puts on lectures in
the subject for teenagers, said the problem was one of
self-confidence. "Boys tend to think they are better than they
actually are and girls do themselves down. With girls it's not innate
ability that's lacking; it's confidence," he said.

But he added that the tide was turning in favour of the discipline,
helped by the fact that the media was now "on side" with programmes
such as Radio 4's In Our Time, which with the help of Professor du
Sautoy last month devoted an hour to the subject of imaginary numbers
such as the square route of minus one. "I can't remember the last
time broadcasters would have unashamedly gone into so much detail
about maths," Mr Eastaway added.

And it isn't just broadcasters who are championing maths. McKellar
made it into the men's magazine Maxim earlier this year, posing in
her underwear in one shot, while accessorising her college cardigan
with nothing but a bra in another. The actress claimed the Maxim
shoot, which some commentators have argued sends girls a mixed
message, showed girls that "smart is sexy". She said the
"juxtaposition of an actress who became a maths author makes maths a
bit more sexy", adding: "I want girls to get the message loud and
clear. You don't have to choose. You can be whoever you want to be,
and studying maths makes you more fabulous."

Ms Wimbury backed up McKellar's logic, adding that her books would
help to persuade girls that "being smart is cool". She said: "I was
very impressed with Maths Doesn't Suck. She explained it in a way to
appeal to her audience and was mathematically rigorous."

Theatre and comedy have also embraced maths in recent years. The
theatre company Complicite has just finished its third run of A
Disappearing Number, a play that kicks off with a maths lecture and
goes on to explore the unlikely kinship between the Brahmin
mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who has been called "the most
romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics", and the
Cambridge don G H Hardy during the First World War. Matt Parker, who
describes himself as a "stand-up mathematician", played to a packed
house at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in August, while Sara Santos,
a fellow in mathematics at the Royal Institution, has taken maths to
the streets with her popular maths busking, which sees street
performers engage passers-by with maths puzzles.

Ms Wimbury said the UK Mathematics Trust hoped to set up a European
Girls Mathematical Olympiad in 2010, following the success that a
guest team from Britain had at a similar event in China this summer.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Danica McKellar, the former 'Wonder Years' star who
is the new poster girl for the maths-can-be-sexy movement ]getty
images] -- see
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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