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…


6 thoughts on “The MidSchool Math Conference

  1. May IU suggest that readers who would like some advice on converting recipes from customary units to metric units visit the British Guild of Food Writers guide on metrication at It might be necessary to make certain changes to accommodate US habits – for example in pre-metric days a British housewife would use “4 oz flour” while her American cousin would use “one cup of flour”.

  2. Do American elementary schools teach metric as part of the curriculum or do they only teach USC and defer metric until high school math and science lessons? I have never visited the US nor do I know much about its education system. Are you able to provide the titles of the commonly used math books in elementary schools?

    I attended primary school in England during the 1990s and all of the National Curriculum books and educational resources were in metric. Most measuring instruments were exclusively metric apart from a handful of consumer grade items that were dual metric and imperial. The school never taught imperial measurements although many were in everyday use at the time – and still are.

    The younger generation in Britain is familiar with several imperial measurements, despite schools not officially and rarely teaching them for over 40 years, so has little difficulty understanding and using USC with the one and only exception being fahrenheit. Almost nobody in Britain under the age of 30 thinks in fahrenheit or really understands it and its use is largely confined to the retired generation. British visitors to the US quickly become accustomed to food being measured in pounds and ounces or the US gallon but weather reports in fahrenheit continually frustrates them. It has crossed my mind that a high level of popular support for celsius exists in American cities with a high proportion of young and well educated or foreign people but the media and the market have overlooked it.

    • Sorry for the delay getting back to you. I wrote about this issue in my blog post about our relatively new attempt to provide some standardization in our math and science education. (Not to worry. I don’t expect you to have read all of them.) Previously, it was up to the states to determine what its children learned in school: To the best of my knowledge, school systems get to pick from a wide range of texts for their students to use. Even under the new standards, no textbooks are prescribed that I can tell. I’m not sure of the universe of math books out there but I’d be willing to bet there is quite a bit to choose from.

      I’m not aware of more support for Celsius in more culturally developed cities here in the states but I could be wrong. Frankly, I think with the rapid rate of change that currently takes places in most places in the developed world, the younger generation wouldn’t bat an eye at a switch to the metric system. It’s the older generations that tend to balk at the notion of a changeover.

      Thanks for your comments. Linda

  3. Pingback: Taos Middle School and the Metric System | More Than A Mile Behind: America and the Metric System

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