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Danica McKellar makes math sexy

Former "Wonder Years" actress Danica McKellar teaches math using topics like popularity, boys and self-image in her book, "Kiss My Math." She shares inspiring stories of fabulous women in fun careers that use math, showing girls that “smart is sexy." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Actress of “Wonder Years” fame and math whiz Danica McKellar speaks directly to the teen audience in her book “Kiss My Math.” She teaches math using topics like popularity, boys and self-image, and inspires girls with stories of fabulous women in fun careers that use math, showing them that “smart is sexy.” An excerpt.

Kiss My What?
Math? Are you kidding me?

In high school, a teacher once suggested that I be a math major in college. I thought, “Me? You’ve got to be joking!” I mean, in junior high, I used to come home and cry because I was so afraid of my math homework. Seriously, I was terrified of math.

Things had gotten better for me since then, but still — college math? That sounded really hard; I didn’t think I could hack it. Besides, who studies math in college other than people who want to be math teachers, right?

Boy, was I wrong. Just ask my friend Nina.

In college, Nina wanted to be a doctor more than anything in the world. She’d always wanted to deliver babies! She was smart, funny, and totally capable of doing whatever she set her mind to — until she found out that calculus was a required course. The idea of taking calculus scared her so much that she dropped out of the pre-med program and gave up her dream!

And Nina isn’t the only one. Believe it or not, lots of people change their majors and abandon their dreams just to avoid a couple of math classes in college.

So, what does “Kiss My Math” mean?

It means: “Um, excuse me, I’m going to do whatever I want with my life, and I’m sure as heck not going to let a little math get in my way.”

Who knows what you’ll do? Armed with math, you might become a cutting-edge scientist and develop your own line of all-natural makeup or therapeutic high heels. You might discover a cure for cancer or travel into space. You might create some cool engineering trick that destroys trash or creates super clean energy and saves the planet!

Something else, perhaps? Doctor, lawyer, clothing designer, architect? Maybe you’ll work for a big magazine or your favorite fashion line, or maybe you’ll start your own business.

Believe it or not, all of these fabulous careers use — that’s right — math.

Check out Stephanie Perry, Jane Davis, and Maria Quiban’s real-life testimonials on pp. 37, 71, and 128 to see how studying mathematics gave these ladies a leg up on their competition in the worlds of television, fashion, and magazines. Betcha never knew math could give you power and freedom in those areas.

And if anyone tells you it’s impossible to be fabulous and smart and make a ton of money using math, well, they can just get in line behind you — and kiss your math.

Actress: In the highly competitive world of entertainment — whether it be the bright lights of Hollywood or the glamour of the New York theater — being an actress is more than just performing. The camera fails to capture the “business” in show business! We typically will give 10 percent of our salary to the agent, 10 percent to the manager, and 5 percent to the lawyer, plus the publicist gets a flat fee, which needs to be budgeted for. Savvy actresses benefit from being able to read and understand the math in the contracts, or these people might rip them off! (And you can bet it happens, too.) I speak from experience when I say that a sharp brain is needed to memorize lots of lines, especially the rewrites that come in the night before, and math helps keep my brain sharp.

Interior designer: Are you addicted to those home decorating shows where they turn an old shack into a chic little apartment? Do you find yourself pushing furniture around in your bedroom, rearranging chairs, bookshelves, and paintings? As an interior designer, an empty room is your canvas! Though it plays a large part, creativity is not the only requirement for being a great interior designer. According to New York interior designer Cat Lindsay: “Math is used more often than one might think ... furniture layouts require dimensioning (this involves adding fractions). To obtain square footage of floor plates, we have to calculate areas of triangles, parallelograms, and other geometries. When designing for law firms, calculations are also required when comparing ratios — for instance, how many secretaries there are per lawyer — so we can figure out how to best arrange the offices. Also, if you want to design a fabulous curved sofa or chair, lots of geometry is needed!”

Veterinarian: If you’re like most people, you consider your pet to be a part of the family. Besides making excellent companions, animals often have therapeutic value for their owners. If you love animals, a career as a veterinarian might be for you! Choosing to be a veterinarian is a serious decision, but the rewards are countless. And there’s no question that you’ll need math: first to get your degree and then to care for the animals. According to Los Angeles veterinarian Tina Chang: “I love spending my days helping animals. Our job includes treating disease, alleviating pain and suffering, and saving lives. With that said, if we do not perfect our math skills, we can make mistakes and cause harm! Being a veterinarian requires the use of mathematics on a daily basis, from simple tasks like weighing an animal to more complex ones like using metric system unit conversions and math formulas to determine appropriate doses of lifesaving medication.”

Event planner: Have you ever been to a wedding or a huge party where everything seems perfect — right down to the candles, the music, and the flowers? If you’re the kind of girl who loves to arrange parties as much, if not more, than actually attending them, then event planning might be a good match for you, and it takes more math than you might guess. According to New York City event planner Allison Lafferty: “We use math all the time to calculate things like the square footage of the space where the events takes place to insure all of the tables, food, and DJ booth will fit. We also use math to determine the amount of decorations and food/beverage needed for the number of attendees. (For example, one gallon of coffee usually fills 15 cups, so depending on the time of day, we first estimate how many people will drink coffee.)” Chicago Social magazine event planner Kelly Berg adds: “As an event planner, I’m given a budget that I must work within, which means I need to track expenses for individual events and entire fiscal periods. For example, how much did I spend on catering and event décor at my past 10 events? What percent of the event décor cost was dedicated to flowers? Yep, behind every good party there are proportions, fractions, integers, you name it!”

Architect: It’s easy to go about our daily lives, moving in and out of houses and buildings without imagining how they were actually built. But, when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing! The Empire State Building, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco are all astounding, but consider the Seven Wonders of the World: Each is the product of an architect — many architects, and, in some cases, generations of architects. If only all of us could visit the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, or the Great Wall of China, we might have a better appreciation for architecture. It’s truly a remarkable art form, but remember that architecture is a science, as well. According to New York City architect Michelle Drollette: “To be a successful architect, one needs to be both creative and methodical at the same time. Developers (the people who hire us) have complex pricing models that use square footage (as well as other criteria) to estimate how much profit will be made once they sell the building they’re asking us to design. So, we often face the task of designing a space within a narrow square footage requirement while thinking outside the box to create visually interesting spaces. Fulfilling this requirement while we’re designing can be like doing an algebra problem with square footage, and a puzzle that depends on creative input, all at the same time!”

Fashion designer: Do you pore over the latest issue of Vogue as soon as it reaches your doorstep? And, besides fantasizing about wearing the clothes you see inside, do you imagine yourself actually designing them? If so, maybe being a fashion designer is your true calling. According to couture designer Jessica Wade of JesWade design: “Fashion designers need to know math for lots of reasons. If [a designer] creates her own designs, then she needs to understand geometry and math for manipulating fabric shapes and matching each seam: Flat planes of material must become three-dimensional masterpieces! And each final design has to be fitted, which means additional measurements and proportions when making clothing for all the different sizes. Finally, fashion is a business, like anything else: A designer needs to budget the cost of clothing materials and be able to analyze sales reports to see how her clothing is selling!”

Gourmet chef: Behind any great dining experience, there is a great chef! With waiters rushing in and out, steaming pots on every burner, and cooks scrambling to get each order in on time, the kitchen makes up the nerve center of the restaurant. And, as chef, you run the whole show! Maybe you create your own delicious recipes too — rare entrees, special sauces, or even those elegant desserts they roll out on carts for the customers to drool over! According to chic, four-star, New York City restaurant Le Bernardin chef Stacia Woodrich: “To be successful in a professional kitchen, a chef must understand fractions and proportions in order to adjust recipes for the specific number of people we are catering to.” Yep, fractions and proportions are helpful in the kitchen, whether you’re adjusting a cookie recipe at home for friends or serving large groups of people in a swanky French restaurant.

Film producer: Are you a huge film buff? Ever wonder what some of your favorite movies look like from behind the scenes? Well, you can be sure there’s a lot more going on than what you see on the screen! Film producers, for example, are part of the movie even before the actors and actresses are, and yes, they are in charge of the financial aspects of a film. According to Hollywood film producer Kim Zubick: “Film producers use tons of math: from estimating costs and meeting studios’ budget requirements to get the green light, to negotiating salary rates (which can also involve percentages of profits) and the schedules and budgets themselves (often involving ratios and algebra). Film budgets are truly math puzzles that keep evolving while we shoot the movie. It’s the producer’s job to keep the movie on budget, or the movie might never make it to the big screen!”

Doctor: To be a doctor is not only an enormous accomplishment, it is probably one of the most admirable professions there is. As a doctor, maybe you’ll perform lifesaving surgery on a sick patient or travel to third-world countries to give much-needed medical care. You might experience the thrill of delivering a baby or helping an accident victim walk again. According to fabulous New York OBGYN Dr. Laura Meyer: “Several mathematics courses were required in college. And now I use math almost every day, whether I’m calculating a medication dose based on a patient’s body weight or plugging lab values into an equation to evaluate a patient’s kidney function.” She also says, “One of the most exciting parts of my job is delivering babies!”

Boutique owner: What’s great about an independent boutique is that most of the clothing and accessories shoppers find there are unique. They don’t necessarily follow all the current trends. Are you the type of girl who chooses your wardrobe based on your own individual style? Maybe you’d be interested in opening your own small store where all the items are personally selected by you. According to Even Newhart, owner of chic Los Angeles boutique Wicati: “Math is just as important to my success as fashion sense! Owning a boutique is all about the numbers — how much to order, how much to spend, how much to mark down, how much to project for the future, and more. I love owning a boutique clothing store, and believe me, math keeps the doors open.”

Photographer: How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I had my camera with me right now”? Well, it is the job of the photographer to always be ready to capture that amazing sunset over the water, or to document the events of a war, a protest, a rally, or even the daily lives of people most of us will never meet and places we will never see. Each photographer has a unique perspective on the world and, in pictures, allows us to see and feel what he or she does. According to Los Angeles-based professional photographer Cathryn Farnsworth: “Photography is mostly creative, but we do use math, too. For example, the intensity of light on a subject decreases proportionally to the square of the distance between the light and the subject. In other words, if a subject is moved 3 times closer to the light, the subject will look 9 times as bright!”

Excerpted from “Kiss My Math” by Danica McKellar. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Hudson Street Press, a division of Penguin Group.