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Tips to educators for teaching the metric system, and ideas for schools celebrating National Metric Week

National Metric Week, each year, occurs during the week in which October 10 (i.e., 10/10) falls, thus carrying out the metric system's decimal theme. National Metric Week provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to acquaint students with the metric system or to expand their knowledge about its usage, history, and importance in the world as the international system of measurement. However, these ideas do not have to be tied to National Metric Week and can be used throughout the year to teach the metric system.

The USMA Web site provides useful information on the metric system. Teachers and students will benefit by investigating the wealth of material available on this Web site.

General principles for teaching the metric system

Top priorities for teaching the metric system at any level include the following general principles supplied by Dr. William Hooper, a retired college professor who has successfully taught courses on the metric system to teachers and prospective teachers for 20 years:

  1. Stop teaching (and using) the inch-pound (I-P) system completely. Teach only the metric system.

  2. Never teach conversion of units from I-P to metric or vice-versa. It is a skill that will hardly ever be needed by anyone except a few specialists, and then only during the transition period.

  3. Teach measuring in metric by doing measuring in metric. Acquire metric measuring devices (meter sticks, kilogram/gram scales, Celsius thermometers, etc.), preferably ones that are metric only. If they are dual (showing I-P also), cover up, cut off, sand down, or paint over the old I-P scales.

  4. Use SI, the International System of Units, also called the modern metric system. There are many well-meaning people who consider themselves metric authorities but know only the older versions of the metric system (like CGS and MKSA) and who are not aware that some practices in those older versions are not acceptable in the SI. Don't teach wrong practices that will have to be untaught later.

Ideas for acquainting students with metric units and suggestions for in-depth learning activities

A good hands-on exercise is to set up a series of tables:

Number each of the items to be measured. Develop a 2-column worksheet: One column labeled “guess” and one column labeled “actual measure.” Tip: Acquaint students with metric sizes; see the Commonly used metric system units, symbols, and prefixes section of this Web site.

Have students guess the size of a numbered item and record the guess on the worksheet. Then have them measure the item and record that figure before going on to the next item. By the time they've guessed a few metric sizes and determined the actual sizes, they'll have gained a feeling for the sizes of metric units.

Students like to make their own “body rulers.” This helps familiarize them with length and mass (weight) units. Give students a form or card for recording the sizes of their body rulers, or use the sample questions provided on this Web site.

Using their “body rulers,” have students estimate the sizes of other things — books, pencils, desks, etc. — in the room, and then check them for accuracy with a ruler or tape.

To become familiar with longer measurements in meters: Measure the height of windows, the height of the door, and the height of the door knob. Measure the length and the width of the room. Then figure the area of the room in square meters. For very long distances, have the students guestimate the distance between buildings. Then award prizes for the closest guess.

To become familiar with volume measurements in liters: Fill a fish tank or other large container with colored water. Have students guess the volume of water, and award prizes for the closest guesses.

To become familiar with temperatures in degrees Celsius: Solicit volunteers to have their body temperatures taken. Record results. (The school nurse may cooperate by providing either sterilized or digital thermometers.) Have students read the Celsius room temperature and record it. Take a thermometer outside, allow time for it to adjust to the outside temperature, and record it. Have students write in words how the different temperatures feel (e.g., 20 °C feels comfortable, 14 °C feels chilly, etc.).

See the Temperature Measurement section of this Web site for more about Celsius and kelvin temperatures, including mnemonics to help the novice understand the degree Celsius temperature scale.

“Crickets Chirping” is a unique activity about temperature from a proficiency test given by the Ohio Department of Education.

You might want to know the temperature but a thermometer is nowhere to be found. You hear crickets chirping around you. Why not let them tell you the temperature?

To interpret what the chirps mean, count the number of chirps in one minute, then use the formula T=5+(n/8), where T is the temperature in degrees Celsius and n is the number of chirps made by the crickets in one minute.

If there are no crickets where you live, you're out of luck.

[Reproduced from the May/June 1998 issue of USMA's newsletter, Metric Today.]

In a showcase, perhaps in the school library, make a display of metric measuring devices as well as bottles and packages of foods labeled in metric units. You can add books with pictures of scientists for whom some of the metric units are named. For a backdrop, include a large map showing that the entire world uses the metric system, highlighting the three countries (U.S., Burma/Myanmar, and Liberia) that have not fully adopted SI. The USMA Web site can give ideas for things to include in your showcase, especially the Consumer Products and Metric Numbers to Remember sections of this Web site.

Suggested lessons in various subjects

Ideas for celebrating National Metric Week that can be used throughout the year

(Some of the following ideas and activities were provided by Don M. Jordan, PhD, of the University of South Carolina.)

Local merchants are usually willing to donate merchandise to schools for use as prizes in contests like those outlined below. For example, restaurants, movie theaters, groceries, and department stores might provide gift certificates.

In September, announce the planned National Metric Week contests or other projects so students will be looking forward to the celebration.

1. Collect metric items (containers, measuring implements, scales, bumper stickers, descriptive posters and illustrations, etc.) and make a National Metric Week display in the school library, in classrooms, or in the school's lobby. Or create a Metric Center: Collect and catalog significant articles, books, and pamphlets on the metric system to serve as reference materials.

2. Conduct a school Open House or Parents Night sponsored by the Science and Mathematics Departments including a session on “Why we need to teach metric first.” Have the Science and Math Departments plan a metric in-service session for the school faculty. Devise a Metric Fair or Metric Olympics for your school with all metric events.

3. Devise a series of questions about the metric system, or use the sample questions provided on this Web site, with prizes for correct answers (or for the first correct answer). Or hold a contest for guessing: (1) the number of kilograms that make up the mass of a specific school's athlete; and (2) the height of the school's principal in centimeters.

4. Fill a large jar with candy and place it somewhere visible but secure, and give a prize for the best guess of the mass of the jar in kilograms. The prize could be the jar of candy (divided among the winners if there is more than one winner).

5. In the school cafeteria, label a number of food items with their portion sizes in metric units. Post signs that show, in metric units, the approximate volume of milk sold in the cafeteria each day. List the approximate number of kilograms of meat ordered for use in the cafeteria each day.

6. Generate a crossword or word search puzzle based on metric system terms and give a prize for the first student who solves the puzzle. USMA has examples on the Puzzles and Quizzes section of this Web site page.

7. Give a prize for the best-written article on (1) Why the metric system is easier to use than the inch-pound system; or (2) How the metric system originated; or (3) Backgrounds of those for whom metric units are named; or (4) A brief history of metric-system conversion activities in the United States. Submit the best articles for promoting the use of metric measurement to the school or local newspaper.

8. Hold a metric poster contest, giving prizes for the best metric-system-based posters. This contest would have to be announced well in advance of National Metric Week to allow students the time to develop the posters.

9. Shopping assignments: Choose a product line such as food, cosmetics, drugs, hardware, medical devices, or sports equipment, and shop for items in that product line that have labels or descriptions in metric units. Report findings to the class. Give students an assignment to check their home and store shelves for product labels that contain incorrect metric system symbols, then have the student write a letter to the company pointing out the incorrect symbol, indicating the correct symbol, and explaining the erroneous meaning of the incorrect symbol. Provide a prize for the best letters, and post copies of the winning letters on bulletin boards or in the school's newsletter or bulletin. Implement Metric Patrol Plan B. Give a prize to the student who brings in the most entries which contain the data listed on the Plan B worksheet.

10. Metric before and after surveys: Conduct a survey of the student body and families of students to determine what people know about the metric system and how people feel about the ongoing conversion to metric. Then, after presenting reasons for conversion and answering objections by those opposed to conversion, reconduct the survey and see if attitudes were favorably changed toward the metric system.

Note: USMA invites teachers to provide reports on their National Metric Week celebration, for possible use in its newsletter, Metric Today. Also appreciated will be your notifying USMA if you have additional ways of celebrating National Metric Week.

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Updated: 2012-08-03