In 2006, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck published research finding that girls perceive of the intellectual ability to do math as a “gift”—and thus, shy away from it when it becomes challenging. Boys don’t have this problem—if they believe mathematical capability to be innate, they simply assume they have that innate ability; if they don’t, they thrive on the challenge. When girls believe different kinds of skills can be developed, they find their way through challenges and even outperform boys.
This research shows us how early-on tropes about women in STEM take shape, and why so many women and girls fall out of the STEM trajectory throughout their lives. The Harnisch Foundation and a diverse, woman-powered creative team and cast set out to shine a light on the issue and change the conversation with “Math Brain,” a PSA in the style of a 1980’s infomercial that launched today—in honor of Pi Day.
“The math brain can be yours,” the spokeswoman, played by PSA writer and producer Cate Scott Campbell, says to the camera. “In fact, if you’re watching this, it is yours. Why?” She proceeds to destroy a gelatin brain mold after ripping it from a box. “Because you already have one.”
“‘Math Brain’ isn’t your typical PSA,” Campbell said in a press release. “Our video is more accurately its angry, stylish, punk rock little sister who’s ready to smash things.” (Okay, but why a 1980’s infomercial?) “It felt like the perfect vehicle,” Campbell added, “to sell something that you don’t actually need.”
Campbell brings to the role a passion for the subject at hand: She is an actress, writer and producer who has taught math to teen girls for over a decade; created and produced the critically acclaimed short “How I Do Math;” wrote, produced, and starred in the digital scripted series Tutored and cohosts a Forbes podcast called The Limit Does Not Exist, which champions the intersection of creativity and STEM.
“What girls believe about math and their abilities to do it has the power to make or break their success,” Campbell said. “All of the work being done to excite young women about STEM is vitally important. But if those same young women believe that they’re destined for failure because of the way their brains work, how much can we really achieve?”
Carly Usdin and Robin Roemer of Scheme Machine directed and shot the PSA; their feature-length film Suicide Kale is currently on the festival circuit. “As a kid I was always good at math, and people were always really confused by that,” Usdin told Ms. “And I loved the idea of parodying an 80s-era infomercial. So this whole project is really near and dear to my heart.”
Math Brain was produced by Goldflies Media in association with Scheme Machine Studios. Alison Korth created the geometric set and bright palette of props, Gio Castro designed and illustrated the onscreen graphics and animations, NYIKO composed the synthesized score and Spencer Devlin Howard edited. A number of Los Angeles brands, including ban.do, provided accessories.
You can find more videos, cast and crew bios and more information about the MATH BRAIN project at ihaveamathbrain.com.
Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms., Managing Editor of Argot Magazine and a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s also the co-host of THE BOSSY SHOW. Previously, she was the Community Director and Feminism Editor for Autostraddle, a Contributor at Mic, Blog Editor at WIYL and a SPARK blogger; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, MEL, BITCH and Feministing. She stays very zen in L.A. traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.