My Recent Metric System History Presentation

Low turnout, poor messaging?

Interior of Mesa Public Library

Interior of Mesa Public Library, Los Alamos, NM

Despite my full session on using the metric system a couple of months ago at the MidSchool Math conference and decent publicity for my talk, my turnout on Wednesday at Mesa Public Library was eight people, five of whom know me.

This somewhat surprised me since this is both a “science” and “history” town. Plus, I had a fair amount of interest when I participated in a science event here a couple of years ago and most people I talk to express some level of interest.

Thus, I find myself disappointed at this particular turn of events but not discouraged.

Still, the three people I didn’t know asked lots of questions and were quite engaged. So there’s that. One of them wanted to know if there was a form letter he could send to his elected representatives. I love that he was willing to take action. (I plan to have a website down the road that will contain that information along with many other resources but I haven’t gotten there yet.)

Was it a bad day (right before a long weekend)? A bad day of the week (someone mentioned other clubs meet on Wednesdays)? Or just general apathy from a county that might take the metric system for granted due to our high percent of scientists who use it every day for work?

It could be a bit of any of those things but it’s made me think I need to do more to get my messaging right. I think what I’ve been doing is good and I’ve got the right points but they need to “pop” more if I want to break through all the communications noise out there in the world.

Honing my story

If nothing else my 40+ hours of work on the presentation forced me to construct the entire timeline for the documentary. It also forced me to go in depth in some areas I really hadn’t before (see upcoming blogs on some of the Americans who worked to block metric adoption, for instance) and raised some additional questions that I’ll need to look into. Of course, now that I’m not under an immediate deadline, I need to pare the information down (though I came in at a respectable 55 minutes).

It brings to mind a quotation loved by so many writers:

Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short
Henry David Thoreau*

Of course, a timeline with some interesting information does not a compelling story make. I still need to think a lot more about my “plot” and how the story needs to unfold to keep my audience engaged and prepared to take action as the credits roll.

Can there be a happy ending? I’m sure counting on it

Over time I’ve come to realize that one of issues I’ve got is I’ve got a kind of negative story due to our lack of metric adoption in this country. Americans as a group don’t like to be told they’re behind in things, even if they are. I have to worry about a potential immediate turnoff because I need to make people look into a mirror and see an image that’s not very flattering. It makes a more difficult story than one with a “happy ending” but not insurmountable.

On the positive side, while our metric system history has been pretty dismal up until this point, all is not over and there exists the potential for positive change. That’s why I’m putting in all this work on top of my full-time job.

Learning from TED

For those of you unfamiliar with TED talks (if so, that’s a shame, I encourage you to change that), they’ve become world famous for their format: 20 minutes or less, minimal overheads and compelling storytelling. I’ve been charged with pulling together some TED-type talks for work so it’s given me time to learn more about their construction. I plan to takes the lessons I can glean from them and apply some to the project, including developing a catchphrase. I’ve been hoping I’d be inspired with one but that hasn’t happened so far so I’m just going to have to sit down and brainstorm.

In future, I’ll probably share my ideas with you to get your input on a possible favorite.

In the meantime, allow me to share one of my favorite TED talks. It bears no relation to the project with the possible exception of showing that one person’s efforts can influence many others: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life. Please enjoy.


* Apparently that quote has seen many variations over the years. If you want to learn more, go to The Quotation Investigator.

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…