Metric System Teaching/Learning Resources

Speaking at the MidSchool Math conference a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about how I first got involved with the metric system as an adult. It was two hobbies really: beading and working with essential oils. Both forced me to work with metric units: millimeters and milliliters, respectively.

How crazy is this? Bead sizes in mm and strand in inches.

How crazy is this? Bead sizes in mm and strand in inches. Image from Fire Mountain Gems

Beading wasn’t too bad since most bead sizes were expressed solely in millimeters but I had my daughter buy me a caliper so I could start to envision the various sizes. The oils were more difficult because some books and websites used metric units while others used customary units and that made price comparisons difficult.

Using what works beautifully

Of course, once I started mixing oils it became readily apparent that working with decimals was FAR easier for scaling up and down and I abandoned customary units for this work entirely. That left me primed for events that followed: I learned about our sorry history with the metric system and started to shoot video again at work. That intersection of events eventually led me to take on this documentary project.

I will say that while learning the metric system, you should avoid conversions as much as possible. The more you work in the metric system the easier it is. You most likely already have rulers and tape measures with metric units. Just get used to using them in place of those pesky customary units.

Metric system resources for teachers and others

There are lots of resources on the metric system out on the web. (As well as “metric system,” another search term is “International System of Units” [or “SI” as it is referred to by most of the world] or Le Système international d’unités” in French. The quotation marks tell the search engine to look for that exact term, BTW).

Here are a few handy sites to get you rolling:

National Institute for Standards and Technology. It has free resources specifically for teaching the metric system. Here are a couple of things my contact there sent me

Information on how to teach the metric system from the U.S. Metric Association

Don’t know this site (Math is Fun) very well but seems to have some good resources for teaching kids.

I came across this site while researching for this post. The “mystery canisters” further down on the page sounds like fun.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics position on teaching the metric system in schools.

Using the metric system in the kitchen

A question that came up during the session was how to convert U.S. customary unit recipes into metric units. Since few people currently use scales in their kitchen now (mandatory with the metric system since grams are used—not volume) it’s not surprising that issue came up.

I offered she could make the recipe the usual way making note of the millimeters and grams as she went along and it wouldn’t be any more variable than any other time she’s made it. (Grandma’s treasured layer cake, for instance.)

However, I found a site with easy-to-use conversion tables for converting your old recipes: “The Metric Kitchen.” I suggest this approach instead.

Need a new recipe? Just start out with it in metric units.

For instance, the wildly wonderful site allows you to access ingredients in metric units from the get-go:


To view metric versions of recipes on, click on “Change servings” and choose metric


The Metric Maven also has a metric cookbook that I know he’d like to see get some more use.

“Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy”

I’ve had requests for the overheads from Math and the Metric System (pdf). I am willing to share them here but please understand that you’re missing the narration that goes along with them and I do reserve the rights to work that went into them. That said, I hope you find them informative.

I’ll have another post next week. I have several different subjects in mind but I can’t decide which one to write about next.

Of course, if you have a question, please send it to me ( and I’ll see what I can do about collecting them and providing answers in this blog.



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The MidSchool Math Conference

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

My presentation on Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy at the MidSchool Math conference went very well. The session had 50 people registered and while not everyone showed up, most folks did. Since the attendees were mostly math teachers I felt I had an opportunity to get them thinking about the metric system in new ways that they could take back their classrooms and hopefully their lives. The group was receptive and had lots of questions for me. They were also able to interact and ask each other questions about their metric classroom experiences.

Hands-on opportunities

I had scheduled some hands-on exercises using length and mass to help them get used to applying metric units. While length didn’t present much of a problem, only a couple of people used scales in the kitchen. This gave them a chance to play with some of the equipment I brought. (Let’s face it, pretty much every ruler and tape measure today has both U.S. customary and metric units on them but most people are so familiar with measuring cups that it doesn’t occur to them to use a scale in the kitchen though it’s far easier.)

I also brought some metric-only rulers supplied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (centimeters on one side, millimeters on the other) and they cleaned me out of those—which I consider a good sign.

Avoid conversions!!!

A couple of folks on the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) listserve who communicated with me prior to my talk wanted to make sure that I didn’t encourage conversions during my presentation. Not only was that explicit in my presentation—twice no less—but I also pointed out that I’d gotten that feedback from USMA to try to drive the point home. I think it worked.

After all, the metric system was introduced at a time of widespread illiteracy and even unschooled french farmers and tradesmen learned it easily enough. It should be a cinch for today’s high-tech Americans.

One attendee told me she thought it was the best presentation she’d seen so far (I was in the afternoon on the second day) but I have to say that the keynote speaker on the first day, Dan Meyer, was extremely good. He stressed the need to engage kids studying math in the classroom in three acts and bring them along for a story where they really want to figure out what happens. Let’s face it, everyone gets more interested if there’s a good story involved. I think the audience heard him.

Testing my story structure

For my part, I got a chance to try out part of my story structure for the documentary on an audience, hear questions and find out what parts of the narration were of the most interest by their level of attention. There’s just nothing better than trying out your material on a real audience. I’m very pleased with the results but I will continue to refine and expand.

Since I did attend a couple of sessions other than my own, I also had a chance to engage with additional teachers and all seemed very interested in what I’m trying to do. It was only one of the other presenters who gave me pause when he suggested that the next generation would take care of metric conversion in the United States. (Only other time I’ve heard that before [good idea but not now] was in John Quincy Adams’ report to Congress back in 1821—haunts us every time we get serious about metric adoption by the way…) I quickly realized that there was no point in arguing the issue with him but would have loved to point out that in the 30 years since the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded no “next  generation” has come along so far and perhaps he’s part of the “next generation” that should do something. Ah well, I tried to be as persuasive as possible under the circumstances.

As should always be the case, the teacher and learner roles got reversed during my session and I walked away with some additional things to think about and research.

For instance:

  • I’ve been told the military uniformly uses the metric system but others have told me that’s not true. True status will take some digging.
  • When converting from miles to kilometers, what happens to the mile markers since they’re currently used to help drivers know how many miles to their next exit?
  • What’s the best way to convert existing recipes into metric?

The cost of conversion

Of course, the biggest unanswerable question I get asked is how much would it cost to convert to the metric system in this country. I don’t think anyone has a good grasp on that since it’s been so long since the question was seriously considered.

Aside from the cost of conversion errors, and time savings in schools and elsewhere on an individual basis, imagine how much time it takes to design things for multiple countries with dual labeling—including the use of more ink to print both sets.

Converting to the metric system will have a mostly one-time cost while failure to convert to the metric system continues to cost us, and cost us and cost us…


The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 2: The More Things Change…

Beware the endcap in the supermarket

Beware the endcap in the supermarket—no unit pricing.

Can we expect resistance to metric adoption from the food/supermarket lobbies?

Based on what I’ve come across so far, the answer would be “Yes.” Early on I had someone “in the know” tell me that grocery stores had been against metric adoption during our last push in the 1970s because they would get caught between metric units and consumers, as in “I can’t buy a kilogram of hamburger. What the heck is a kilogram?” But I think it goes deeper than that.

Uniform measures make it more difficult to deceive customers

Food manufacturers and supermarkets will continue to play games with us as along as it benefits them. In the 1967 copyrighted, The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray, (In chapter 3, “The Package as Salesman”), he points out that after World War II, the dynamic between the food retailer and consumers shifted as the public stopped going to local “markets” and started shopping in “supermarkets.” Without the human interface and a large array of products within a category (cereal again comes to mind), and with the generally high quality of most of the offerings…

Packaging is no longer merely a method of holding or containing the product for storing and shipping. It is now a major element in the advertising and promotional campaign. It is a full-fledged salesman. p.13

The author then includes a quote from a sales promotion manager:

Some food processors are actually in the packaging business rather than the food business. p.13

Fast forward almost 50 years and things really haven’t changed that much.

I started poking around in food retailing publications and came across this quote:

In the wake of multiple lawsuits around the use of the term “natural” (against Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo, Goya Foods and others), it could be time for food companies to reconsider using it on labels and focus instead on new product design and more creative language.

Thus, food manufacturers are still under fire for misleading claims, promises and labeling. The article, “The Natural Debate: Your Consumer Is Your Regulator” was dated March 4, 2014 and was linked to from

Obviously, we’re still the target of manipulators as manufacturers try to get us to buy their products and stores try to sell us items with the highest profit margins.

Making easy cost comparisons when buying food—how prevalent?

I remember a time when I had trouble figuring out which food was the least expensive since the “unit price” amount didn’t always use the same base (as in “cost per ounce” for coffee versus “cost per pound”). A recent trip to my grocery store (Smith’s) revealed no such problem with the labels on the shelf. All were clearly marked and easy to compare. However, a little more digging revealed that application of unit pricing regulations is not uniform within our country. While my state does not necessarily adhere to unit pricing, apparently my supermarket chain does.

However, I was able to find examples of mixed unit pricing to show you on

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Flour2Note the two weights on flour sold in its site. In one the “cost per” is pound and other one lists ounce. Frankly, I can’t do that math in my head to figure out which is the best deal without a calculator.

How the metric system could help in the supermarket

If we were using the metric system for these things comparisons would become easier since larger and smaller amounts relate to each other by multiples of 10, 100, or 0.1, 0.001, so you’d just move a decimal point in one direction or the other and not have to deal with the crazy 16 ounces in a pound we use now.

I’m not saying we couldn’t get deceived when we’re buying food or other items once we’ve converted to the metric system but it should make our lives (and those of our children…) a little easier. Isn’t that worth a little hassle in the short term?



Note: My title references the old proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Originally from French (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), it means that things don’t really change all that much.

The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 1: A Little History

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Last Thursday (February 27, 2014) the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new nutritional labeling standards for packaging in the United States. The original law, called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, was put in place in 1990 in an effort:

  1. To clear up consumer’s confusion about food labels
  2. To encourage consumers in making health food choices, and
  3. To encourage product innovation so that manufacturers are given an incentive to improve the quality of the food and make more healthy food choices available to consumers.
                                            Virginia Wilkening
                                            Food and Drug Administration

It was probably less effective on the last point than the first two but let’s examine a little history.

Measurement and trade

Since people have traded with one another, sellers have tried to cheat their customers to their own ends. That’s one of the reasons why throughout history there has been resistance to setting measurement standards (the metric system included). The new  regulations adjust serving sizes (mostly upward) but also highlight the nutritional information on the labels.

Serving sizes

While researching this project, my contact at National Institute of Standards and Technology recommended a book called The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray. With a copyright date of 1967, it relates that after World War II, consumers (quaintly referred to as “housewives” throughout the book) were getting up in arms because, as they purchased more convenience foods, they started having problems figuring out how much product to buy because the serving sizes were not standard. Each company made isolated decisions regarding what an “average” serving size constituted.

To one manufacturer, a serving of peaches might be two halves; to his competitor, it might be one half or three halves. It is like buying by the hat—and using the seller’s hat as a measure. p. 92.

In case the problem with having non-standard serving sizes for food isn’t readily apparent, let’s apply that logic to something we deal differently with today: gasoline.

The scenario goes like this: You need some more fuel and there are two gas stations across the street from each other that have determined their own “serving sizes.” Lo and behold, the price of one of the serving sizes is less expensive than the other. Is it really a better deal or just a smaller serving size? Without further investigation, there is no way for the consumer to know and that’s exactly what was going on in the grocery stores. A glance at two, say, cereal boxes next to each other might seem like the one with more serving sizes for the same price is to be a better deal. But would that impression be accurate? At the time, the answer was “No.” Enter the federal government.

While the serving sizes have been fixed by the federal government since the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 (metric units were added to labels in 1992), there was plenty of resistance from the food industry according to the book since deception would become more difficult via that method.

And manufacturers still play games with us

Don’t worry about the food industry. They’re still finding way to take advantage of us today. You don’t have to read many issues of Consumer Reports to see an example where a reader has bought a usual item only to get home and realize the new box or bag contains less than when it was last purchased. Just because the manufacturer has adjusted the weight or volume in print (according to regulations) doesn’t mean they’re not trying to hide something. (When was the last time you saw a box emblazoned with “Now, less for the same price!”?) Yet it downsizes product contents all the time.

Let me tie in the metric system more closely: the labels will continue to be a mishmash of metric and U.S. customary measures (for new readers of the column, we don’t use Imperial units in the country, but our units are derived from them). In the example, the serving size is expressed in both customary and metric units but the nutritional content is only in metric units and thank goodness. If they were in fraction of ounces, you wouldn’t know if they were weight or volume (metric units only express mass—which relate to the gravity of the planet you’re on) or some other incomprehensible subunit. For instance:

Protein = 3 grams = 0.10582oz

If I tell you that a gram is roughly the same mass as a standard (that word again) paperclip, that’s fairly easy to imagine. Now, try to imagine a unit of 0.1 of an ounce. A bit tougher for most people I’d guess.

This post has run as long, or longer, than it should. Stay tuned. There’s more to learn.


Metric System Presentation at March 2014 National Math Conference

The conference hopes to reverse the trend of declining math score in mid school

The conference hopes to reverse the trend of declining math score in mid school

Next month (March 28 to be exact) I’m making a presentation on the metric system at a national conference in Santa Fe called MidSchool Math thanks to project supporters with Imagine Education. The theme of the entire conference is Stop the Drop and refers to international testing standards that show in 4th grade, American kids are slightly above their cohorts in other countries in math but by 8th grade, they score slightly below. It’s the hope of the conference’s organizers to start to reverse this trend. During the three-day conference, sessions will cover a variety of topics from Mathematical Icebreakers to a keynote session on How to Make Kids Hate Math. My session: Math the Metric System: Using What’s Easy. So far, eight people have registered but there’s more than a month to go.

The cost of the conference is $475 or $525 (that whole early bird thing) and if you’re a teacher in New Mexico, you could be eligible for a stipend of up to $1,000 to cover the conference and its associated costs. Check it out or spread the word.

Having written on the subject of education and the metric system, I have a place to start to build my presentation content, particularly on the subject of Common Core State Standards for math as they relate to the metric system. My session will be an hour and fifteen minutes long so I’ll have time to cover lots of material and, with the assistance of our federal government in the form of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (thanks Elizabeth!), I’ll be able to supply attendees with some modest metric supplies and games to take back to their classrooms.

Total side note: I was just looking for meter sticks on Amazon and came across “One Meter (39-1/2″) Wood Stick Ruler.” Really? You’d think if you were looking for a meter stick (and not a yardstick), you wouldn’t need to have the inches spelled out for you. How much time is wasted in this country having to continually include both metric and U.S. customary numbers? Then I found this in a description: “Meterstick is lightweight and ideal for the classroom. It measures 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick.” Pathetic. Let’s please get our metric act together.

I plan to devote quite a bit of time to developing the presentation. When people walk out the door, I want them to say “Wow” but in a good way. That will take time, research, rehearsal and matching my subject matter to my audience. I realize that public speaking frightens a lot of people (some studies rate it as the number one human fear!) but I don’t currently have that problem. I say currently because at one point in my career I wasn’t making a lot of presentations but once I needed to again, I was able to relax pretty quickly. My largest audience to date: more than 500 people. The only caveat to my being relaxed is I have to know my subject matter. That shouldn’t be a problem in this case.

Luckily, I also have some teaching background and found that I’m pretty accurate about being able to estimate how much material I can cover within a particular time period. Of course, it’s always a good idea to have a little extra, so in case you find yourself running short, you can continue a little longer if needed. As the saying goes, “Always leave them wanting more,” but you also want to make sure people walk away feeling like their time was well spent.

I’m also hoping there will be a method for people to feedback on how I did. I find constructive criticism very helpful. While it’s unlikely that I’ll give this exact talk again, who knows what parts of it could come in handy as the project progresses.

It will be nice to get out and interact with the attendees and the other presenters. I’m sure I’ll learn things that will benefit the documentary in ways that won’t seem obvious watching the end product but if you follow this blog, you may see how they ultimately inform me.

I’ll be sure to share what I find out that’s interesting and fun…stay tuned.


A Metric System Conversion Revelation (and a Weakness with Audio Books)

I had an audiobook from my local library that was about to expire so I spent quite a few hours during the past few days and plowed through it. The book was Daniel Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. I have other of his books, so I knew I wanted to read this one as well.

The book that was such a great help.

The book that was such a great help.

Thanks goodness I did because the last chapter of the book talked about the importance of focusing on the future and avoiding short-term fixes. The book also related the story of when Mayor Bloomberg announced in 2003 there was to be a ban on smoking in bars New York City:

The decision got huge opposition. Bar owners said it would ruin their business. Smokers hated it. He said, “You might not like it but you’ll thank me in 20 years.”

The book then asked the question: How long does it take for the public reaction to such a change to become positive?

What was next in the book next stunned me. Someone (whose first name I couldn’t make out—last name Webber or Weber) had done some research on that topic and indicated:

We did cases studies of how long it took for a change that was initially unpopular to become the new, accepted status quo. Our data shows the range is nine to six months.

Six to nine months? That’s all? That’s the sort of information that if you put it front of the right people (I’m thinking politicians here) you might really be able to get some attention.

I knew immediately I needed to follow up on that information but I couldn’t figure out the researcher’s first name. I listened several times but I just couldn’t make it out for sure. Google searches of lame attempts didn’t help me especially since I’d defaulted to the spelling of “Webber” for the last name for some reason. My library’s paper copy (I had the audio one) of the book wasn’t due until the beginning of next month so I drove into Santa Fe and found two copies in a bookstore.

The book’s index gave me my answer. “Elke” was the first name I was having so much trouble deciphering since I could only hear it. First and last name in hand, I discovered where she teaches at Columbia University and I’ll follow up with her by email to learn more about the case studies cited in the book. (Pages 250-251 for what’s in this post.) Her CV shows articles on risk management and decision making (among other things) but I couldn’t find this particular research. I’d really like to have that information in hand going forward.

To make sure I got my research for this post correct, I looked up information on the smoking ban and came across an article from March of last year (2013) that celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the ban. It contained the following:

Back then many people opposed the bill, and they tried to stop it. They said it was taking away people’s rights as though nonsmokers didn’t have the right to breathe clean air. They said it would destroy the restaurant and bar business in the city, as well as our tourism industry. There were dire predictions about how the ban would lead to job losses and tax revenue [losses],” Bloomberg said. “Well, here we are 10 years later, and we can look back now and see how accurate those four claims were.

Apparently the mayor:

…credited a nearly 50 percent growth in the hospitality industry to the fact that more people are dining out because they can do so without being around smoke.

The Yahoo story even goes on to cite a previous opponent of the bill who owns a bar in the city.

It turned out to be great, not this bad thing that I thought it would be,” Meagher said. At his side, Bloomberg beamed.

I’m confident that our conversion in this country to the metric system will get us to the same point in the future. A little hand wringing at first but then things will settle down.

Plus now I have a new data point that I can hang my hat on to help convince those in power that support of metric conversion could have potential positive effects on their careers since they’re focusing on the long-term national good.

To me, that’s a win-win.


Dialogue on Metric System Adoption

As comments have come into this blog (and I’ve gotten more than 200 since I began) I determined fairly early on that I should have an approval policy.

Grahams hierarchy of disagreement

Grahams hierarchy of disagreement

I put those thoughts up in February of 2013 in “How I Feel About Comments on My Blog”

In summary, I said:


I get to approve comments for this blog and it will be my policy to approve all of them unless they’re spam, libelous, downright offensive or have some other major issue. Comments don’t have to agree with my perspectives but they need to be courteous.

Within the last week or so, I’ve had some anomalies.

One person submitted a comment but did not want an identifier on it so it went up as “anonymous.” I hesitated to approve it since it seemed kind of weasel-like to me not to take responsibility for one’s thoughts, yet want to share them with the world. (I do see an email and an IP address associated with the comment, by the way but they don’t go up with the comment.)

As what’s below seemed reasonable, I went ahead and approved it without an attribution:

Who cares? The metric system is taught in pretty much every American high school. Any self-respecting American scientist uses metric. The military uses metric. Why is this such a pressing issue?

While I don’t make it a habit to answer all questions posed so as to not get into arguments in my comments section, my point is that we haven’t really looked at metric adoption in about 30 years, so maybe now is the time to revisit this as an issue and figure out where we’ve left ourselves as a country.

Then, on the 14th, a comment came in from someone identified as walterminehart in response to my post on Top 10 reasons the United States Should Use the Metric System (or SI)

 well, your wrong bitch

Since I’d already stated that I won’t approve comments that aren’t courteous, I did not approve that one. (“walterminehart” would have been all that would have gone up on that comment, BTW)

I prefer dialogue to name calling

As I thought about it some more, it seems to me that, regard to that particular individual, I’ve “won” that argument.

In looking at the graph at the top of page, people can disagree at different levels such as by bringing up refuting points or, as you descend to the base of the pyramid, responses without substance, as “walterminehart” did.

The individual sunk right to the bottom of the disagreement hierarchy. Frankly, I would have preferred it if the individual had told me why he thought I was wrong. That would have at least raised the level of discourse but I suspect that anyone who immediately resorts to name calling probably hasn’t given very much thought to their attitudes.

I’ve seen a couple of less than reasoned comments to my work (and thanks to the rest of you for putting some thought into your comments, whether positive or negative) but this was not helpful by any stretch of my imagination.

For those of you who have come to this blog more recently, but you should be aware that the Library of Congress is archiving it within its science section, so if you expect that what’s on these pages will eventually end up in the dregs of the Internet, that’s a lot less likely now. (I’m not saying anyone will eventually care, I’m just saying they should be available.) Under that perspective, people might want to think about the legacy they’re leaving behind on these pages. I know I am.

After mentioning the “bitch” comment to a friend, he proposed that I go ahead and approve it with the response, “That’s metric bitch to you.”

Amusing, but not my style.

As this project moves forward I hope we’ll enter into more of a discussion than a shouting match and that other metric system proponents will join me in taking the verbal high ground.



Graphic: ‘Loudacris’. Modified by Rocket000 (Transferred by Cloudbound/Originally uploaded by Reisio)

2014 Will Be the Metric System Turnaround Year in the United States

Welcome to the statistical Annual Report via WordPress

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 34,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

This week’s post

While I feel I’ve made some real progress toward the background for the documentary, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. While I already have quite a few people and organizations lined up for interviews, there’s still fundraising (and everything that goes along with that), putting together promos with no budget other than what I can currently take away from my living expenses, technical considerations of equipment and software and a whole host of challenges including keeping up my full-time job as a writer/project managers for a national science laboratory. (There are no problems, only challenges, mind you.)

Progress is being made

In January of 2013 there were 431 visitors to this blog and last month (December) there were 2,952. That’s quite an increase, and for that, dear reader, I’m deeply appreciative of your scarce time and attention on what I consider an important and mostly overlooked topic.

However, singing to the converted is only going to get us so far. 2014 is going to need to be the year we both start to break through and media noise and get some real traction attached to this issue along with its implications for our future generations with regard to math, science and medicine. It’s not too late despite our very checkered past. It dates back to Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and, in part, helps make the whole story so dang interesting.

Let this become your mantra: We only have to solve the metric system problem once.

And it is solvable. How many other things can you say that about? Not education. Not healthcare. Not any variety of social reforms. But metric system adoption in this country, yes. And we really do need to treat it as a project and ensure that the structure put in place to carry it out is dismantled when it is time…but not before.

While others around the country are beginning to catch on through major media (Discovery News, Scientific American and the Smithsonian this past year) there’s still work I need to do, which will be quite laborious on my end, along with the need to engage with relevant people and organizations.

The folks on (and the reddit metric subpages) are already on board and they’ve driven a considerable amount of traffic to my site, including almost 2,000 hits in two days because someone posited the question “What’s something from another country you would like to see happen in your country?” It generated quite a bit of conversation on the the topic.

These bursts of interest give me hope that I’m on the right path and I’m happy to say I have a number of people who are helping me along. I’ll continue to rely on their support moving forward. I’m grateful to them everyday.

And remember that each and every one of you is making a difference as well. Allow me to press into service an old adage:

Many hands make light work.

I sure hope so. In fact, I’m counting on it.

My very best wishes during the coming year,


Could the Metric System Help Our Student Assessments and Education?

Earlier this month the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) announced its 2012 scores for 15-year-old students in reading, math and science literacy. It also includes

…measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as problem solving. PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling.

For the bottom line: The top 10 countries, had a range of scores from 55.4 to 19.4 for math literacy proficiency level 5 and above, while we scored an 8.8.

Frankly, I was surprised that this news caught some major (if fleeting) media attention. (What to see more coverage? Type “PISA scores” into a search engine and then search “News.” Or, some are complied here.)

Where the top countries scored (partial graph, for whole thing, go here):

Countries with top PISA scores

Countries with top PISA scores

Where the U.S. stands

Where the U.S. stands

The assessment is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics. Given that pedigree, it could be difficult to accuse the test of bias against the United States. I’ve written about our apparent lag in math and science education behind emerging economic entities and its potential relationship to our lack of metric adoption, so let’s see where we stack up this year.

The report states:

In the United States, 9 percent of 15-year-old students scored at proficiency level 5 or above, which was lower than the OECD average of 13 percent. The U.S. percentage was lower than 27 education systems, higher than 22 education systems, and not measurably different than 13 education systems.

And for math literacy:

The U.S. average score was 481, which was lower than the OECD average of 494.

Bottom line: By the time our children are 15 years old, not only are they not in the top of math and science literacy, in many cases they’re barely hanging onto the bottom of average. It’s a sorry situation.

Just having a bad year with the test results?

So, could this be an aberration? Perhaps we were just a little bit off in 2012. On that topic, the report states:

The U.S. average mathematics, science, and reading literacy scores in 2012 were not measurably different from average scores in previous PISA assessment years with which comparisons can be made (2003, 2006 and 2009 for mathematics; 2006, and 2009 for science; and 2000, 2003, and 2009 for reading)

As I’ve written in this blog before, it’s not so much that our students are falling behind, it’s that other counties’ student are making much more rapid progress.

Interestingly, earlier this week I came across the review for a book that seeks to debunk what I (and others) have identified as an American decline. While I’ve been looking at the areas of math and science education, Josef Joffee’s new book, titled The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Econimics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies, apparently takes a much wider view of view of the situation. While I am very hesitant to say much about a book I haven’t read, let me quote from the publisher itself and let you know where I see a major problem:

Buttressing his argument with facts, Joffe demonstrates that America’s future is sanguine. In contrast to the Carter years, the economic woes of the Obama era look more like a nasty migraine. By historical standards, the U.S. defense burden today is extraordinarily low, hence sustainable over the long haul. Immigration (plus a healthy birth rate) will not only keep the nation younger than China, Japan, Europe, and Russia but will continue to bring in the world’s best and brightest. Indeed, America is the “world’s Ph.D. factory” both in science and engineering, while its R&D spending dwarfs the “rising rest.”

[Emphasis mine.]

That last statement above is misleading as far as I can tell. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy so I can look up his source for that statement but based on the research I’ve done so far, that’s not what I’ve found.

According to our National Science Foundation (National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012):

Besides the generally vigorous pace at which the global total of R&D is now growing, the other major trend has been the rapid expansion of R&D performance in the regions of East/Southeast Asia and South Asia, including countries such as China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. The R&D performed in these two Asian regions represented only 24% of the global R&D total in 1999, but accounted for 32% in 2009, including China (12%) and Japan (11%).

[Emphasis mine.]

As for us churning out huge numbers of PhDs, here’s a chart I’ve used before that illustrates where undergraduate degrees in science and engineering are being earned and would seem to indicate that we’re falling behind compared to many of the same countries who are outscoring us (Tough to get a PhD in this country if you’re not first granted a Bachelor of Science) :

STEM degrees

Science and engineering undergraduate degrees worldwide (National Science Foundation)

I do believe that we are getting behind the curve in some ways and our continued lack of metric system adoption is one example.

Sure, we might still be in the lead in some areas but think of all the empires that have come before: the British, Mongol, Roman, French, Ottoman (and many others you’ve probably never even heard of) and ask yourself if they recognized they were about to decline or were sure they’d be on top forever? I’m guessing the latter.

I’m not saying that metric system adoption is a panacea for all our problems but why can’t we at least stop handicapping our children with a measurement system that our competitors dropped many years ago? Our dysfunctional use of our U.S. customary units certainly aren’t helping us progress as a nation.

Happy holidays,


Someone’s in the kitchen with the metric system

I’ve written before about what it would take for us to integrate the metric system into our daily lives but one of the areas where it would really need to take hold is in the kitchen and grocery store. This week I’m addressing the kitchen issue.

What would need to change in YOUR American kitchen

Once the switchover occurs, you’ll be able to hold on to your liquid measuring cups (unless they’re so old they don’t have metric units on them—that would make them pretty old—time for measuring cups 2.0 me thinks.).

Kitchen scale

A sleek way to move toward metric kitchen measurement.

But you will have to give up your “dry” measuring cups (Hopefully you haven’t been using them interchangeably over the years as I once did.)

Why? Because the metric system measures mass not weight. (Be careful you don’t confuse the two. They’re not the same thing. An object’s weight can change since it’s dependent on gravity but an object’s mass doesn’t change no matter what planet it might be on. Here’s an accessible site in case you want to learn more.)

Using mass instead of volume should improve your cooking, and your baking in particular, since baking tends to be a bit more persnickety when it comes to measurements.

In fact, the King Arthur Flour website goes into quite a bit of detail about the implications of measures and includes:

Although in 1959 English-speaking scientists agreed to use the metric system for scientific and technological purposes, that’s been of little use to bakers.

Needless to say, I hope that will change (Not the right year by a long shot but at least they’ve put the two thoughts together…).

Still, I was surprised that that the company included information that apparently in this country our measuring cups can legally vary by up to 12%!   Add to that that how hard one scoops into a container of flour can also vary how much it holds—by quite a bit.

There can be a variance in how much of a dry ingredient, such as flour, is actually in a measuring device. This is affected by the manner in which it is added to the measuring cup and by how much the ingredient is compacted. Humidity is also a factor in the weight of the dry ingredient. (

Talk about a recipe for disaster!

Archimedes scale

Archimedes scale. Cool but you’d need access to water and has no tare function.

Once we transition, we’re all going to need kitchen scales. I highly recommend a digital version for a couple of reasons: most have a “tare” functions and most can switch back and forth between grams and U.S. Customary units (could be helpful until all our cookbooks are in metric units).

The tare function is really handy because let’s say you want to measure several dry ingredients measured in grams.

First, put your container on the scale and hit the tare button. The number will zero-out so you don’t have to subtract its mass before adding anything else.

Then, let’s say you need 2 grams of salt, 40 grams of butter and 13 grams of baking powder.

You could add the two grams of salt, and then add the butter until you reached 42 grams and baking soda until you reached 53 grams.

Or, much easier, just zero-out the scale with the tare button after each ingredient and put in the exact amounts specified in the recipe.

A truly logical system

One thing that struck me while I was doing research at the Library of Congress a few months ago was the consistency of some of the ingredients in both “weight” and volume measures. Upon reflection, however, it makes perfect sense since the kilogram was designed to have equal volume and mass at the same time.

In the early metric system there were several fundamental or base units, the grad or grade for angles, the metre for length, the gram for weight and the litre for capacity. These were derived from each other via the properties of natural objects, mainly water: 1 litre of water weighs 1 kg and measures 1 cubic decimetre (dm³).  

Where recipes might start to “break down” would be for ingredients that would be much or less dense than water. (See the image below.)

From a metric cookbook that included both mass and volume measures. Note the similarities.

From a metric cookbook that included both mass and volume measures. Note the similarities.

There is another caveat here: depending on how precise your scale is, it might have trouble with small amounts of something. I have seen some metric recipes that measure these small amounts in milliliters rather than mass.

Cutting board with built-in scale.

Cutting board with built-in scale. (Hopefully doesn’t dull your knives.)

Unless you have serious concerns about your scales I’d advocate for their use. For those folks who just couldn’t stand the idea of measuring ingredients without spoons, we’d want to trade in our current tablespoon, teaspoon, half and quarter teaspoons for metric units, and while you can buy them here, the measures equate to our current measures so they don’t make a lot of sense: .6 mL and 1.2 mL, etc. Much more logical would be: 1 mL, 2 mL, 5 mL etc. (Maybe when we get our act together we can get them in this country.)

Still, I will say that I have a precision scale that measures down to 1mg and when I used the 10 gram calibration weight on both of my kitchen scales (and not expensive ones, mind you), they were both spot on. So now you know.

A spoon and digital scale in one!

A spoon and digital scale in one!

It’s not too soon to start playing around with digital scales and the holidays are just around the corner. Add one to your wish list and help bring others along with you! I’ve includes some really cool ones in this post for you to consider.

And here’s a handy idea of what you can do with your old measuring cups once you no longer need them (reduce, reuse, recycle after all). More on this topic later but I’m keeping a previous promise.

One idea of what to do with old measuring cups once we go metric.

One idea of what to do with old measuring cups once we go metric: an organizer!

I’ll have another post in a week, I promise.

Till then, have fun,


Notes: Scale images from: