Scientific equations and the metric system

Fancy images with cosines and fractions.

A formula with fractions. Can we just decimalize everything?

I’ve been told (as in second-hand information) that many countries that have switched to the metric system don’t really need to teach fractions anymore because pretty much every fraction can be decimalized. Additionally, I’ve had first-hand conversations with middle school teachers and students who find teaching and learning fractions is a nightmare. Do we really need fractions or, once we switch to the metric system, can we just lay them aside? Over time, I’ve come to question that and here’s my current thinking…

Ultimately, a fraction is part of a thing

We will always need the concept of a less than a full measurement unit. Just as a pound cake was known for its ease because it was based on the ratio of a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, it was pretty crude in terms its result. Whether we only need part of a measure of fabric or a piece of wood that is less than a meter long, it is important that children learn (and adults understand) the notion of something that is less than “one” of something.

A fraction has a built-in “math problem”

Maybe some of the resistance to fractions is the inherent idea that it is, as its heart, a “math problem.” (Would we think about things differently if they were called “math challenges” rather than “math problems”? Let’s see…) A fraction is a division “quest.” It can ask a practical question, as in “If I have a half a cup of flour left in this bag and I need a whole cup for my recipe, how much more do I need to borrow from my neighbor to get the full amount needed?” It is a division “question” that needs to be solved if we pair it with anything else (as in add, subtract, divide…).

Consider the following two math “dares”:

combined

A traditional math “problem” on the left that includes fractions with uncommon denominators. On the right is the same math problem decimalized. The top number in the decimalized addition has only been carried two places to the decimal point, otherwise, it would go on forever.

When I hold up “flash cards” side by side with both types of problems shown above during my metric system demonstrations, almost invariably, people choose the one that has been decimalized because it eliminates the issue of uncommon denominators that are such a stumbling block for both children and adults. It also eliminates the steps to get to common denominators because all decimals already have common denominators in the form of 10s, 100s, 1,000s etc.

For the decimalized addition, just add up the columns as you would any math “action,” just making sure you keep track of where the decimal point goes in the final result. Pretty easy if the original equation is properly aligned as above.

In answer to the question “Can we get rid of fractions altogether?”

No. While most things will work just fine if you even go two or three numbers to the right of the decimal point, for some things it just won’t work since many decimals are frequently “rounded” and don’t fully express a numerical concept. While I am not a scientist, I do work with quite a few and when I posed the question of just decimals, “No” was the answer that came back to me. That’s because many fractions just don’t work as decimals for scientific formulas. Consider the fraction in the second math image. If you try to convert it to a decimal you have a problem because, technically, it trails on forever as in .3333333333333333333….

Scientists and mathematicians can’t work like that and need the compactness of fractions to visualize and express their work. (See the graphic at the top of this page for equation fractions.)

That said, let’s keep them where we really need them and stop needlessly torturing students, teachers and our population in general.

Even U.S. stock markets no longer report losses and gains with fractions down to the 16th. It changed a few years ago when the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered that all stock reports convert to the decimal system prior to April 9, 2001.

Why did it use fractions of quarters, eighths, halves, and sixteenths? According to the article from Investopedia, it dates back to the “pieces of eight” that Spain used some 400 years ago when it decided to exclude the thumbs for the purposes of counting…

Thanks for reading,

Linda

Measures and mistakes due to our lack of the metric system

triptick

The scene when the Spinal Tap’s manager discovers the prop is MUCH smaller than he expected.

In a scene in Rob Reiner’s mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, the rock group’s manager (played by Tony Hendra) goes to pick up a piece of scenery that is meant to evoke Stonehenge in connections with one of the group’s songs. He indicates that he’s quite pleased with the model with which he’s been presented with until he finds out that it is the finished piece and not a model. He expected something 18 feet high, not 18 inches high.

The designer (played by Anjelica Huston) seeks to defend herself and pulls out the napkin she’d been given to work from to show that the specifications indicated 18″ by 18″. She’d done exactly as instructed.

Closeup of napkin with specifications

A zoom in on the napkin held in the character’s hand reveals the specifications she was given was, in fact, not 18 feet but 18 inches.

Within our measurement system, the difference between (“) and (‘)* is huge. In fact, the difference is 279.4 mm or 11 inches!

“Well,” defenders of our current measures might say, “that was done for comic effect and bears no relationship to the real world.”

I beg to differ by way of an example supplied to me by a coworker.

Her husband needed a metal bar fabricated and specified on the order “3/4″ x 3/4” x 1/2′ Long.” However, instead of getting a bar that was three-quarters of an inch wide and three-quarters of an inch thick and six inches long, he instead received a small block since the (1/2’), or a half foot, direction was read instead as part of an inch rather than part of a foot.

Shows the instructions

The instructions as provided to the fabricators.

Photo of small aluminum block.

Instead of a six-inch-long bar, he ended up with a block slightly smaller than an inch in all dimensions.

As if that isn’t confusing enough, the (“) and (‘) symbols can denote both lengths and durations. Thus, 5’ 4” could mean either five feet and four inches or five minutes and four seconds if there were no context indicating which measure was intended.

So, along with the many stumbling blocks of education and medicine, and other errors related to commerce, this particular vendor had to record the original order as a loss and make and send an item that actually conformed to what the customer had originally specified.

Such errors would be greatly reduced if orders were written in “mm” for the measures rather than in the easily mistaken (“) and (‘) units.

Thus, the order could have been written: “19.05 mm x 19.05 mm x 152.4 mm.”

A lot less ambiguous.

I wasn’t able to find any information on how frequently such errors are made, but if I only had to look to the office next to mine to find an example, can they be very far away from any of us in this country?

Close up of ruler with metric and customary units.

U.S. rulers often contain a confusing mix of whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth units. Metric system rulers usually just mark on the whole (10) and half (5) counts.

In conducting research for this piece, I also came across information related to “how to read a ruler/tape measure.” One source went into detail about how to distinguish between the half- and quarter-inch marks on such tools. In contrast, metric system-based rules only have differing marks to help count the “fives” and “tens.”

As I continue to look, the more examples I find of how we’re making our lives more difficult since we don’t use the metric system exclusively in this country.

Have an example of confusion/problems you’ve encountered due to our lack of metric system adoption you’d like to share? Feel free to comment on this page or send an email to me at milebehind@gmail.com.

Stay tuned. Right now I’m researching our very early history with the metric system in this country. Luckily, prior to the last metric system push in the mid-1970s, our government put out a 200+ page document that goes into just such history. I’m now rereading it within the context of the book I’m writing.

Thanks for getting all the way down here.

Linda

* Note: Marks for feet and inches should always be indicated by straight lines, rather than by using quotation marks, which are usually curved. Did I have to look up how to make the straight lines to indicate feet and inches to write this article? Yes, yes I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alton Brown and the Metric System

alton-brown-everydaycook-cookbook-coverI have previously written about how the Food Network’s popular chef Alton Brown has praised the ease of the metric system for kitchen use as far back as 2012 in my post called Not the End of the World:

It is impossible to measure these ingredients with consistent accuracy by avoir dupois—that is, volume. Heck, I’ve seen a cup of flour weigh anywhere from 3 to 6 ounces. If you want to measure flour, you have to do so by weight. End of story.
I’m Just Here For More Food, Alton Brown, p. 14.

But, bless his little Southern heart, in his latest book, Every Day Cook: This Time It’s Personal, he’s taken things a step further:

Despite the grumblings of my editor, I’ve decided to quantify these recipes the way I do in real life…For instance, I combine weights (metric no less) with standard volumetric measurements, that is, tablespoons, in the same recipe…However, when I do weigh, it’s always metric because…I hate fractions. I also hate working with decimal points, and that’s the nice thing about grams. No one ever says 18.4 grams unless they’re weighing out something that’s controlled either by local/state/federal laws or by international treaties. Now, I know that there of you who say food isn’t worth the trouble of purchasing a decent, multiformat digital scale with tare function (allows weights to be zeroed out), but you’d be flat-out wrong.

Of course, I could quibble with the fact that the metric system is based on mass rather than weight (weight varies by the gravity of the planet you happen to be on—mass is mass, regardless), but I suppose he could quibble back our scales actually go by a weight equivalent of mass—and I couldn’t prove him wrong.

kitchen scale

There are lots of scales on the market. Pick one that catches your fancy to start with.

But here’s the important bit: not only is he urging cooks of various persuasions to buy and use a scale in their kitchens (you can’t consistently use the metric system without one, and very few people have a proper kitchen scale), but he also includes recipes that are based on metric units!!!!!!!

For instance, his recipe for Always Perfect Oatmeal includes 120 grams of rolled oats, 25 grams of quinoa, 475 grams of water and 7 grams of kosher salt. Yes, he does provide a couple of those ingredients with U.S. customary equivalents but for the quinoa and salt, he does not, thus forcing the use of a scale or a conversion. Where there are conversions, there will be conversion errors so hopefully those with the mistakes will see the error of their ways.

I urge you to take advantage of the coming holiday season to 1) buy lots of copies of Alton’s book for those you love; 2) and buy them a scale to go with it to get folks familiar with weighing things in the kitchen. Then, when we do convert to the metric system, more people will be ready. Tell you what, if this post gets more than 2,000 views before the end of the year, I’ll make a short video showing just how easy a scale is to use for cooking.

A couple of words about kitchen scales

Three years ago I wrote a post called Someone’s in the Kitchen with the Metric System where I extolled the benefits of using scales in the kitchen. While Alton said something about getting one for under $100 (yikes!), most of the ones I’ve bought for the kitchen and demos are between $10 and $15 each and—when I checked them against a calibration standard they do a respectable job all the way down to a gram.

In the post I put up a few years ago, I also pointed how there are some very cool scales you can get to present along with his book. Hardcover is currently $23.57 from Amazon. Throw in a scale for another $10 and you’re good to go. Buy a nifty scale like the one above and bump the package price up by an additional $20. Hey, do whatever best suits your gift-giving needs.

However, I do urge you to buy and use his book to support someone brave enough to include metric system units in an American-based cook book that also supports my work by getting people familiar with using scales in the kitchen. Every little bit helps and this is more than a little bit!

If I loved him before (and I did), I love him even more now.

Also, do let him (and his publishers) know that you support his use of metric system units through social media by using #EveryDayCook along with #USAgometric.

Thanks!

Linda

Odds and Ends…and the Metric System

A thermometer in Celsius and Kelvin (By Martinvl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A thermometer in Celsius and Kelvin (By Martinvl (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons)

Sorry for the delay in posting. The truth of the matter is I started this project in addition to a demanding full-time job and have been juggling the two for almost three years now. My body and mind told me I needed some downtime and I’ve taken a few weekends off.

The good news: I’m back on track and making progress toward some goals. As some of you know, I recently held a new logo design contest that will tie into work I have planned for the future. The whole project took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated so I had to retool a bit. More on that in a later post.

New, recent presentation

Okay, not brand-spanking new but I recently made a presentation on the 140th anniversary (May 20) of the United States as one of the original signatory countries on the Treaty of the Meter. It gave the International Bureau of Weights and Measures the authority to set metric standards (or SI as it is known elsewhere) for the rest of the world. It’s still active on various fronts including efforts to define the kilogram scientifically (currently the kilogram is defined by a piece of metal that resides in its care with several other mass “standards” residing around the world).

The presentation wasn’t completely new as I gave it to a smattering (okay, smatterin’ is being generous…) of people last spring.

My audience this time was a group of doctors and health-care workers at our county hospital. It has a lecture series every Tuesday and I offered myself up. As our lack of metric adoption has health implications every single day (see this previous blog), I could really see a future where health-care professionals could help propel the issue forward. I was paid the compliment afterward of being told “It was like watching something on the history channel.” I took that as a compliment.

Metric system in the news

Many days I get an alert from Google if “metric system” pops up on the web somewhere. Granted, sometimes it references “bio-metric systems” or goes a little off track in some ways, but it does capture most everything I want to see (except for lines in comic strips, since it can’t read those words).

Here are a few recent media pieces regarding the metric system:

[Note: The Chaffee presidential campaign news just broke last night. Expect more from me on his metric system adoption position shortly. In the meantime…]

Child Medications Should Be Dosed In Metric Units–Not Spoonfuls (Forbes, March 30)

Pediatricians prescribe metric measures for doling out meds (Newsworks, April 7)

Parents Warned To Use Metric System When Giving Medicine To Kids (CBS Boston, March 30)

This is the tip of a growing iceberg.

The second question in the quiz referenced the metric system

The second question in the quiz referenced the metric system

Interestingly, it also found a trivia quiz from Macleans.ca, that included a second question based on metric system knowledge.

Capturing the kids’ attention

I recently received some cards aimed at helping children here in the U.S. learn basic metric units. The bottom line as far as I’m concerned, is the more children are familiar with the concepts of metric measures, the more likely they’ll be to accept and use them.

SuperheroesInterestingly, the temperature unit used on the cards is Kelvin rather than Celsius. This hit me as odd since I’ve taught myself Celsius as my primary temperature reference. Meanwhile, Kelvin is an absolute measure where 0 is the temperature at which atomic motion stops (I’m glossing over the details here) or  −273.15 °C. According to my research both temperature Kelvin (or K) and Celsius are often reported together for scientific purposes.

In fact, according the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pages state:

The unit of Celsius temperature is the degree Celsius, symbol °C, which is by definition equal in magnitude to the kelvin. A difference or interval of temperature may be expressed in kelvins or in degrees Celsius (13th CGPM*, 1967).

To be honest, some of the associated information is way over my head such as its reference to the “triple point of water.” I’m sure I can look it up if it turns out that I need to know that particular tidbit of information.

If you’d like more information on the superhero cards pictured above, go to the NIST kid’s pages that also include videos with the associated superheroes.

Linda

* General Conference on Weights and Measures

Return from TED (Part 3): Networking, Canada and the Metric System

American product, metric-only label

American product in Canadian  market, metric-only label

I want to acknowledge how wonderful all the TED Active attendees and staff were. Given the TED philosophy of “Ideas worth spreading,” it’s not surprising that everyone I talked to about metric system adoption in the U.S. were either sympathetic (if not from the U.S.) or interested (if they were Americans). I met a lot of friendly and interesting people and hope to keep in touch with many of them.

Metric system observations in Canada

I hadn’t been to Canada for a long time (though I used to live across river from it when I grew up in Detroit) so I was curious what I’d see in person with my metric system radar on. My understanding was that Canada (like the U.K.) was a “soft adoption” county.

American company, dual labeling and use of French

American company and dual labeling  Don’t know that I’ve ever seen “liq” before. I’m told that it’s the French “onces liquides’ or fluid ounces.

In this case, soft adoption refers to countries that use solely metric units in some instances but both Imperial and metric units for other applications. It’s one of the reasons that the “Turn the UK Fully Metric Now” exists in Great Britan. Sure enough, on the bus ride up to Whistler, B.C. from Vancouver, B.C. I saw nothing but kilometer signs on the roads. However, I did make it a point to visit the little store near my hotel and snapped a couple of shots on my cell phone to confirm my suspicions about the use of both units. Yes, some food products had only metric mentions (or SI as it is known to the rest of the world for “Système International d’Unités ) but many items had dual labeling (plus French, of course).

Another American product with metric-only labeling

Another American product with metric-only labeling

According to a Canadian history site:

Metric units steadily became normal for most products and services. However, certain areas of business did hold out against conversion, such as real estate.

As I related in a previous blog, when I had a phone interview with the head of the U.K. Metric Association, and I asked him why Britain wasn’t fully metric, his reply was along the lines of “Because you’re not.” That comment prompted my piece on how our country sets a bad international example.

Successes and failures

I found out a few weeks ago that I wasn’t accepted for the Women’s Salon for the TEDxABQ event but that didn’t stop me from applying for the big TEDxABQ event that will be held this fall. If I can get in, that would be great because it has an audience of about 2,000 people. I’ve had quite a few successes recently. Getting turned down for one presentation doesn’t faze me much these days.

Thanks for staying tuned!

Linda

Medicine and the Metric System

Allow me to present my main point upfront: we are endangering our health by not adopting the metric system in this country.

Prescriptions are written in metric units. Conversions (and possible errors) are made at the pharmacy.

Doctors write prescriptions in metric units. Conversions (and potential errors) are made at the pharmacy.

Let me offer up a couple of examples that hopefully makes this clear. It’s important to understand that the medical field depends on metric units (as does most of science, for that matter). If healthcare workers talk in metric units and the public at large rely on U.S. customary units there is bound to be confusion and misunderstandings. That’s best avoided where your heath is concerned since the consequences could be dire.

Metric unit dosing is more precise

Last year Pediatrics (Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) published an article called “Unit of Measurement Used and Parent Medication Dosing Errors.”1 One of the article’s bottom lines:

Parents who used milliliter-only unit made fewer dosing errors than those who used teaspoon or tablespoon units. Moving to a milliliter-only standard could reduce confusion and decrease medication errors, especially for parents with low health literacy and non-English speakers.

While a minor mistake (whether too much or too little medication) might not make a huge difference for an otherwise healthy adult, these errors can be magnified for babies or those whose health is already compromised.

Most of our teaspoons and tablespoons are meant for eating, not dosing

No on should use "silverware" as substitutes for measuring teaspoons and tablespoons for medicine to avoid dosing errors.

No on should use “silverware” as substitutes for measuring teaspoons and tablespoons for medicine if they want to avoid dosing errors.

Another issue brought up in the piece was that the use of teaspoon and tablespoon employed for liquid medicines “may endorse kitchen spoon use.” I don’t know about you, but I have three sets of measuring spoons and many more spoons that I use for eating commonly referred to as “teaspoons” and “tablespoons.” The problem is, it’s the eating spoons that are often used to measure medicines. (Yes, I used to do that too, without even thinking about it.) If you have a dosing cup with only milliliters, the potential for confusion is greatly reduced.

As if that’s not bad enough

Even your actual measuring spoons aren’t as precise as you think they are. At one point I came across information indicating that up to a 20 percent variance is allowed. Again, that 20 percent could cause dosing errors. In researching this article I came across a page called “Cooking for Engineers” with the post:

I’ve got three sets of measuring spoons, and their measurements differ from each other, up to 1/4 teaspoon! Is there a way to know which (if any), are accurate?

The suggestions that followed involved scales and the temperature at which one should measure the water used to determine volume. Too bad no one suggested going metric.

Additional endorsement of the metric system for health reasons

I also have a document from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) called 2014-15 Targeted Medication Safety Best Practices for Hospitals2 . Two of its best practices mention sole use of metric system units.

Best Practice 3: Measure and express patient weights in metric units only.

The rationale:

Significant medication errors have occurred when the patients’ weight is documented in non-metric units of measure (e.g., pounds) and it has been confused with kilograms (or grams). Numerous mistakes have been reported when practitioners convert weights from one measurement system to another, or weigh a patient in pounds but accidently document the value as kilograms in the medical record, resulting in more than a two-fold error.

Best Practice 5: Purchase oral liquid dosing devices (oral syringes/cups/droppers) that only display the metric scale.

ISMP has received more than 50 reports of mix-ups between milliliter (mL) and household measures such as drops and teaspoonfuls, some leading to injuries requiring hospitalization.

Beware teaspoon and tablespoon instructions on prescriptions

Almost uniformly, prescriptions are written in metric units. However, if you pick up a liquid prescription and the dose on the bottle is not metric (and in reads teaspoon and tablespoons), the pharmacy has had to make a conversion. Where there are conversions, there is the potential for mistakes.

In addition, one of the top six recommendations in the 15th annual report of the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention3 includes a “Statement of support for use of the metric system to dose medications.”

Advocate for the metric system and help make the country a healthy place!

Thanks,

Linda

Notes: The article itself requires a subscription http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/2/e354.full.pdf. However, a summary is located here: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Reducing-Medication-Dosing-Errors-by-Ditching-Teaspoons-and-Tablespoons.aspx.
2 http://www.ismp.org/tools/bestpractices/TMSBP-for-Hospitals.pdf
3  
http://www.nccmerp.org/sites/default/files/fifteen_year_report.pdf

Fundraising for the Metric System

(Sorry for the lapse in posting. I’ve been very busy. See below.)

My campaign results. Thanks!

My campaign results. Thanks!

As you may be aware, I was recently involved in a class which required that several projects (mine included) raise a small amount of money through crowdfunding. (You can watch the short intro I made here.) Having heard that Internet fundraising is difficult, I thought I was mentally prepared. Besides, my “ask” was small: $1,500. Since longer campaigns aren’t more successful, all our efforts were capped at about four weeks.

Initially, everyone in the class pledged to everyone so there wasn’t a net gain but these efforts helped “seed” each of our projects.

For me everything pretty much came to a standstill after that.

After a couple of weeks of no activity, I started to wonder if I was trying to sell something that no one wanted to buy. I remembered reading many years ago that Thomas Edison had invented things he thought the world needed but those weren’t always successful. He ultimately changed his philosophy to:

I find out what the world needs. Then, I go ahead and invent it.

Was I trying to sell something that the rest of the world realized it needed but United States wasn’t ready for? If the campaign failed, what then?

After some soul searching, I made a decision that I would not abandon my metric adoption campaign altogether. Sure, making a documentary is terribly expensive but writing isn’t. And while writing can be very time consuming, it’s not expensive if you do it right.

If the campaign did fail, I decided, I’d pull my blogs together and form them into a book and try to sell that. Granted one on the subject just came out (I’ll review it shortly) but I had a very different story to tell. Another possibility would be to go ahead and write the script and spend my money shopping that around. The Westdoc Conference provides one such opportunity.

Then, right before Thanksgiving, I started to get additional pledges. One lovely gentleman (who I didn’t know at the time) even encouraged others on the Reddit metric pages to contribute.

The heartening news was that, in the end, pledges totaled 110% of the goal. And as it turns out, more than a third of those who donated were people who didn’t know me!

I’ve since written to all of them personally to thank them since they cared enough to help fund the project. I’d also love meet more of these sorts of people (regardless of contributions) since they’re the ones who will help spread the word about how our population needs to become aware of this important topic. Ultimately, the documentary is just about raising awareness. Knowledge of our situation needs to happen before any further attempts at political reform can take place. After all, you can’t solve a problem you don’t know you have.

And now for something (almost) completely different

Is WordPress making a projection for 2015? Plan to exceed it.

Is WordPress making a projection for 2015? Here’s hoping the estimate is low.

I recently received my yearly statistics report and I’d like to share it with you. (The full report is here.) It’s amazing to me that people from 151 different countries have viewed this blog to date!

Total pageviews to date is 86,727 which is an increase of 47% over the 2013 numbers.

The most popular post has been “Top 10 Reasons the United States Should Use the Metric System (of SI)” with 32,951 pageviews. The fact that people continue to search for information on this topic and find these posts also helps me to feel I’m not out in left field somewhere.

Getting “more class”

Coursera offers free online classes on lots of topics by big-name institutions.

Coursera offers free online classes on lots of topics by big-name institutions.

I started a new Coursera course today that should continue to build my knowledge base for the project: Image and video processing: From Mars to Hollywood with a stop at the hospital.

Becoming more conversant on image processing could only be a good thing for me. Technology in this area is changing all the time.

Lots more coming in future. Thanks for staying tuned.

Linda

P.S. If you want to help on the metric adoption issue, I’d love to hear from you. Optimally, I’d like to locate contacts in different states/regions to help built support locally. If you’re interested, let me know by writing to me at milebehind@gmail.com. Thanks!

Staying the “Coursera” with the Metric System

Coursera offers free online classes on lots of topics by big-name institutions.

Coursera offers free online classes on lots of topics by major educational institutions

Being the masochist I am (at least if you ask some people) by working at a demanding full-time job, spending my “spare time” on this documentary project and  finishing up a class on funding entrepreneurial ventures, I also recently took on another obligation.

A couple of Sundays ago, I was having a cup of tea at about 11 a.m. and glanced at one of my email accounts noticing that Coursera had a new class called How to Change the World. Glancing at the course’s contents, it looked interesting and included a section titled “Women, Education and Social Change.” Hey, I’m a woman, I consider our teaching two measurement system to our children a real waste of time in schools and it’s all about social change for me—even if I’m not trying to change the whole world—just one thing in my country.

What the heck is Coursera?

I had loaded the Coursera app on my phone several months ago (don’t remember how I first came across it) and, while it looked interesting, I wasn’t sure how I’d find the time for anything else right now. It must have looked interesting enough for me to install the app though.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Coursera says of itself:

Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

That’s pretty high-minded and admirable. It’s also a nonprofit organization.

The course in question was being given by the president of Wesleyan University no less. Impressive.

“Okay,” I decided, “I’ll bite.” It was difficult to know exactly how it might help with the project but it was worth a try as far as I was concerned. I immediately realized that I was behind since the course had started several days earlier. For the rest of the day I hunkered down, finished the considerable amount of reading, watched almost three hours of video lectures and prepared my first 500-word paper that I had to submit before I went to bed as the deadline was 8 a.m. the following morning. As a professional writer, I figured I had a slight advantage with writing the essay and could generate it pretty quickly. At least I had that going for me.

Took a survey about my interests. This question really got my attention. Hope some people were kidding.

Took a survey about my Coursera interests. This question near the end really got my attention. Hope 37% of people were kidding and good to know the Coursera folks have a sense of humor.

Coursera correction

I had realized that the essays would be graded by my peers, and I’d need to review some as well, but for some reason I thought I’d get an email letting me know when they were available. Wrong. By the time I figured out I hadn’t been notified I had “papers to grade,” I’d missed the deadline and lost 20% from my score for that week. Drats. I’m being much more careful about all the deadlines now.

Not only am I writing about this since you might be interested in this resource but I noticed something in the course itself that bothered me a bit since it relates to the metric system.

In viewing the videos on climate change, in one instance Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president, mentioned the predicted range of increased global temperature in Celsius with no mention of Fahrenheit. That made immediate sense to me since he had said previously that more than 30,000 people worldwide were taking the course. Most of them would use the metric measure for heat, after all. I myself had graded papers from people who wouldn’t use the Fahrenheit scale, as they had mentioned they were from Croatia and India.

That pleasure turned to disappointment when, during the next video, he mentioned how much sea level was predicted to rise in feet with no mention of metric measures.

He’s probably never thought about which units he should use consistently but I’d prefer he use SI units (how the rest of the world refers to the metric system) exclusively.

Maybe if Americans are exposed to metric units enough (with no translation) and have to go “Huh, what does that mean?” they’ll realize that it’s time to join with the rest of the world.

A girl can hope…

I need to go finish this week’s homework now.

Linda

My Current Metric System Adoption Efforts

TEDx talks are regional versions of TED talks

TEDx talks are regional versions of TED talks

I apologize for the information blackout but I’ve been terribly busy with the day job for the past couple of months pulling together a corporate TEDx talk (and I think that’s all I should say since it’s internal-only, per our license). It’s the first time we’ve done this sort of thing and certainly the first time that I’ve headed up something like it. That said, the event went well and I’m now wrapping things up. Now that I’ve taken a few moments to rest, I should have more energy to devote to this documentary project again.

Even with that, I was still working on things behind the scenes. Here’s a short list of what’s in progress:

  1. I’m building a website that will have all kinds of information on everything to do with the project including a bibliography, links to information for the media and other educational information. I’m still working on it and will announce once things are further along. If there’s information you’d like to see on it, I’ll do my best to provide it.
  2. I’m building a timeline on history as it relates to measurement and the metric system in this country. It’s coming along well but once I launch it I’ll have to pay extra money on a monthly basis. (So far, everything for this project has come out of my pocket but I’m hoping to change that at some point.)
  3. I’m about to buy my first high-definition video camera. I hope to eventually have two cameras. Right now, I need a “starter” camera to get things going and hope to get a higher-end camera after my fundraising is complete. A lighting kit arrived a couple of weeks ago but haven’t even been able to play with it yet.

    Los Alamos Science Fest is coming is September

    Los Alamos Science Fest is coming is September

  4. I’ll have a booth at the upcoming Los Alamos Science Festival in September. I don’t see my activity listed yet but I’m going to demonstrate the superiority of the metric system over customary units in the kitchen with materials and scales. We don’t really use scales in the kitchen in this country since we don’t use the metric system. I think this is a hurdle we’re going to have to overcome and have felt that way ever since I chatted with the a retired, female scientist who told me she never used the metric system when she cooks though she used it every working day of her life.
  5. In conjunction with the above, I plan to make my first videos with it on how to use the metric system in the kitchen. This will help segue me back into video production. I’m hoping to make them fun and interesting and should be able to leverage them for my eventual fundraising video if not for other things.
  6. Contacts, contacts, contacts. This project is never going to get off the ground without the right people involved. Fortunately, more and more people are interested and want to help so it’s more about finding the time to do those sorts of things in the right way.
  7. Speaking of contacts, I’ve meant to pull together a mailing list for some time but haven’t gotten around to it. I think I’ll move that toward the top of my list of things to do since its size will eventually help me determine whether I’ve gotten critical mass to do some fundraising. The mailing list folks will get shorter, behind-the-scenes news about the project. If interested in joining,  subscribe by sending an email to milebehind@gmail.com.
  8. Other musings…I’ve thought about holding a metric adoption conference call or even meeting (no idea when the last time such a thing happened in this country…Roughly 30 years ago?) That’s going to take some planning to figure out how to best make such a thing happen but it will need to be done at some point. If you are interested in this type of activity, shoot me an email.

I did take three days of vacation in June and went to see my daughter while Jamie Cullum was playing in town. We had a great time!

More on the above shortly. The next column will be about our clinging to our units as some strange nod to our British history.

Thanks for staying tuned,

Linda

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…

Linda