The other day I was having a conversation with my son about the metric system. It started innocently enough. He had asked what a gram was and I had obnoxiously and sarcastically replied “1/1000 of a kilogram.” After rolling his eyes and telling me in an exasperated voice that was NOT what he meant, he then wondered how I’d know it was 1/1000. Thus, a conversation on the metric system. My mom, who was listening in at the time, chimed in with a helpful “I don’t know why you bother. No one uses the metric system anyway.” As shocked as I was, I was even more dismayed to note that this was the second time in as many days that I’d heard this sentiment. Yes, I suppose our everyday dealings with measurements requires us to more routinely know the customary system than the metric system. But who among us can deny the beauty and pure elegance that is the base-ten foundation of the metric system? A simple glide of a decimal point this way or that and voila! The value of the number has instantly changed! None of this multiplying by 3 or dividing by 12. No! Just a flip of the little decimal and suddenly my liters are deciliters… my kilometers are hectometers… my…
Okay, maybe I find the metric system slightly more compelling then most but truly, it is a pretty nifty way to convert measurements, once you know what you’re doing. Plus, it’s the accepted system of measurements for all things science, so naturally, I’m in (you had me at science… *sigh*).
Teaching 8th grade science where we deal with a lot of physics (and a lot of measurement!), I was always shocked to find that the metric system was relatively new for most students even though it is addressed in the (California) math standards during earlier years. Though I’ve known some teachers to push forward with their speed and acceleration calculations using the customary system, I found it better in the long run to spend 2 weeks at the start of the year immersed in a unit on the metric system (despite constant moans from my students that they thought they were in science, not math… ugh!). Knowing the metric system and using it throughout a course on physics (and even other science disciplines) allows students to have a more concrete understanding of the physical principles they are bound to encounter. After all, if I’ve spent my time recording data in inches and feet, how will I deal with that pesky 9.8 m/s2 as my object comes tumbling towards Earth?
Certainly, there is a benefit to addressing both the metric system and the customary system in the science classroom. After all, when I calculate the velocity of the Ferrari speeding down the American highway, it’s not likely the patrolman clocked it in meters per second. Knowing how to use both systems ensures a student’s understanding of the concept. But, let’s not ignore the metric system, at the middle or even the elementary school level. There is something quite magical about a system of measurement that can change with the flick of a decimal point.
Want to try a metric unit in your classroom? Check out my unit on the metric system here.