Measuring metric: dueling systems

Why is the metric system so hard to learn for many American’s? Because the customary inch-pound (I-P) system of measurement is winning the duel for supremacy.

Imagine that you have just completed a 5 K (kilometer) run and decide to drive to the grocery store to buy a sports drink. You’ll clock your speed in miles per hour, not kilometers per hour. Once at the store, you will be able to choose a 12-ounce can, or the next largest size, a 1/2 liter bottle or maybe a 2 liter bottle. If you decided to treat yourself to fast food instead, you could order a quarter-pound burger and a 32 ounce drink. The customary inch-pound measurement system wins this round. We buy our gasoline in the customary unit of gallons and we measure our houses in the same system’s unit of square feet. Yet we measure the fat and carbohydrates in our food in metric grams, while we order steak in restaurants in customary ounces.

Metric or customary? If you want to buy some alcohol to drink while you contemplate the confusion, you can no longer buy a fifth of Jack Daniels (or any other alcohol) in that unit. A fifth was a unit representing 1/5 of a gallon, or 4/5 of a quart. Now a bottle approximately the same size as the fifth is a 750-milliliter bottle. In the conversion to metric, consumers lost 0.2 ounces because a fifth equals 25.6 oz and 750 mL equals only 25.4 oz.

So, it should have been no surprise to me as a middle school science teacher, to learn that standardized tests scores in the area of measurement were low in my school across grades six to eight — it wasn’t just in North Carolina. Across the nation, measurement continues to be a challenging concept to teach.

Yet, I was shocked. As a science teacher, I think in metric. Measuring with meters, grams and milliliters are second nature to me. What could be easier to learn or more fun? Metric works by powers of tens. There are no clunky conversions that inches to feet or ounces to pounds require. Yet, when I looked at the content that middle school students were required to learn about measurement, compounded by the reality of their daily life, I realized why their scores were low.

Students must learn two measurement systems: the customary and the International System of Units (SI), the international name for the metric system. And they never know which to choose and when. So, I began implementing fun activities to help my students assimilate the information. One of my lessons, The SI System on the Basketball Court, is currently in the February issue of Science Scope, the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) journal for middle school teachers.

You must be a member of NSTA to read the lesson, but the corresponding Background Activity Slide Show on the SI system can be downloaded as a pdf, free for use in classrooms. Click on the link or go to my site to download the slide show:

Why teach the metric system?
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has this on their Web site, “In today’s global environment, metric measurements are prominent in workplaces, consumer products, and news reports. Almost every other country in the world uses the metric system of measurement. The European Union, Japan, and Korea have passed legislation limiting international commerce to products measured in metric units. If the United States is to continue to play a leading role in international business, using metric measurement is imperative and U.S. workers at all levels must be knowledgeable about the Système Internationale (SI), the international name for the metric system.”

By 1900 a total of 35 nations, including the major nations of continental Europe and most of South America, had officially accepted the metric system. If we want to communicate with scientists and engineers around the world, the US will have to learn the metric system of measurement, now called the International System of Units, that was created by the French.

Seven units comprise the metric system: the meter (length), the kilogram (mass), the second (time), the ampere (electric current), the kelvin (temperature), the mole (amount of substance), and the candela (luminous intensity).

There was a strong movement toward the use of the metric system in the US during the 1970-1980. Since then, the SI system has been losing its duel for supremacy over the inch-pound system. Congress has not pushed for a law making the metric system the sole measurement system in the US. However, since the SI system is the sole measurement language of most of the world, the US will have to become a metric nation to measure up in the global arena.


7 Responses to “Measuring metric: dueling systems”

  1. Thomas Bailey Says:

    I think the reason the USA is slow to convert is because we have been using customary units for centuries. Although metric is easy to learn, as I have discovered in 1975, at age 8, it is more visualizing metric units that is difficult. Most of our food is packaged in customary, although an increasing number of items are packaged in metric units. Equal, Splenda, most soft drinks, and some olive oil are packaged in metric (sweetener in 1 g packets, soft drinks in 1 and 2 l bottles, olive oil in 500 and 1000 ml bottles). Most rulers have inches and centimeters, many bathroom scales have pounds and kilograms. If these tools offer a choice between metric and customary, I gravitate toward metric.

  2. You have no idea what you are talking about. You are only spouting propaganda.

    1. The US and British Customary systems have been the world wide measurement system for over 1000 years. The metric morons reason for changing to the metric system is because “they say so”. The United States is the most dominant force in the world of business. What we do the world follows. Even China must conform to our standards or they would have no where to sell their cheap slave labor. We don’t need to change, but some people want us to change anyway.
    2. The congress does not have the power to force the metric system on the states of the union as the Congress was not given that power under the Constitution for the United States. Congress has done all it can do by allowing the metric system to be legal under The U.S. Metric Law of 1866. Since then it has been up to us to choose and we have chosen. Only communists and teachers unions want to change to the metric system. Everyone else is happy the way things are. Why else would you call to make it against the law to use our heritage system of units?
    3. It has cost many billions of dollars just to change labels. The environmental impact has been devastatingly expensive. The cost of ink to print two measurements is an expense forced on us by the metric morons. Children should learn the two systems if they are to become scientists. But most will never need either system of measurement. Most people do not compare two boxes of cereal based on weight and price to see which one is the best buy. They should, but they usually just buy the one they prefer to buy. I see no problem printing both measurement systems on a box but the maniacs that want to remove our heritage and the US/British system of measurement from boxes and force Americans to adopt a European standard is ridiculous. They are just being bullies. And truth be known they have lied to you the whole time.
    4. It is a myth that the metric system is easier to use. So if it is easier to use then ask yourself what is half a meter? 0.5 meters which is often not so helpful. But ask yourself what is half a yard? 1.5 feet which is helpful because most people on earth can relate to that measurement. What is a third of a meter? 0.33333 meters. (yes a fraction). What is a third of a yard? One foot. So you see all the “clunky” conversions are still there all the fractions and dividing and multiplying. So I ask you which is more useful? The US customary system of course. We all know it. It is inherently easier for human beings to use. The US/English system is easier to visualize and use. Why bother to change just because some guys in France say they have a better way? What has France done that is so great that they should dictate “anything” to the world?
    5. The only confusion is from the kids who are caught up in this takeover of our measurement system.
    6. Some morons from France decided around the time of Napoleon that they wanted to control the world and they decided to control all things including the system of units. Why do Americans resist, because we don’t like being told what to do, just because someone decided they don’t like the way we run our lives.
    7. The meter is defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole. The brilliant globalists forgot that the earth is not spherical but slightly out of round so the definition of the meter was wrong for hundreds of years. Bet you did not learn that in school. So why learn a system of measurement that was inherently wrong. Because they say so. They did fix the definition a few years back, when they realized their error.
    8. There are many more than 7 categories of units in the metric system, I can think of 32 off the top of my head. Energy, force, flow rate, luminance, torque, pressure, power, mass density just to name a few. That is the difference between teaching grade school and actually working in science. All scientists use the metric system in areas other than length, mass, volume, velocity, acceleration and area. That is because when those other areas of science (electricity, magnetism, radiation, etc) were invented (in the last 200 years) scientists made up the conversions, as they found useful for their experiments. For instance the measurement category of “magnetic flux density” has a unit named Tesla. Nikola Tesla was the guy who invented the alternating current system of electricity. The same electricity that runs all of your appliances at home. So the metric people want to replace the Tesla with “kilogram per ampere times square second”. Now doesn’t that sound easier? The truth is that every measurement that was named after a scientist and used today by scientists the metric morons want to rename. This is because the goal of the metric morons is to remove the men of science from the measurement system. This is a disgrace, not to honor the men who founded our science. There is no real difference what name you give a unit; whether a unit is named Tesla or kilogram, but Tesla honors a man and kilogram honors no one. The point is that these units are already in the metric system; but are being removed purely for selfish and politically correct reasons; not for scientific reasons and not for ease of use reasons. The men doing the renaming are just bureaucrats and not scientists themselves. They could not calculate their way out of a paper bag. They seem to just like causing problems for other people. I have designed parts for the space shuttle, the super collider, fuel injectors and other items; all with the US/English customary system of units. This has never been a problem for myself or the other scientists that I work with all over the world (Japan, England, Middle East, etc).
    9. If the metric morons get their way, vast amounts of scientific data will be lost, that was collected under the scientific measurements used today. Did you know that in 1893, the Office of Weights and Measures (renamed later as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and then renamed again to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)) mandated that any data from a US geodetic survey be expressed in feet equal to 3600 / 3937 meters (exactly) and be called a ‘US survey’ foot or ‘geodetic’ foot. That was because the foot was recalculated in terms of the meter. This caused a problem in that all the maps in the United States were measured in feet. As a result all the maps would be wrong if they recalculated them in meters instead of actually measuring the distance. So the complication of using two different feet measurements, the US survey foot and the international foot is the result of “moving to metric.” It just gets worse the more truth you know; does it not?
    10. The mars mission that was destroyed because of English to metric conversion, was not the fault of Americans. As usual it was the fault of America, deciding to share space with the Europeans. They tag along but are not up to par. The Europeans failed to make the conversion back to US units. It would make sense for them to do so because they were being paid by the US.
    11. When they changed liquor from a fifth (of a gallon) to a liter they shortchanged people 0.2 ounces and kept the price the same, that’s called fraud and price gouging. When these change overs happen the companies gouge the public. Wait until they change gallons of gas to liters, that should be full of price gouging as well. By the way it costs 1.95 dollars a liter in Europe for gas * 3.78 liters per gallon = $7.37 dollars per gallon. Do we really want to “do what Europe does”, I think not.

    I could go on but 50% of those who started reading this explanation are now asleep because they just don’t care or their brain exploded because of too much information. It is hard to deal with finding out that your teachers are either ignorant or have been lying to you on purpose. The truth is it takes a while to explain the truth but lying and saying, “go metric” takes only a few seconds.

  3. Paul,

    Your response just reinforces what I wrote. People in the US don’t want to go metric.

    You accuse me of spouting propaganda, but you clearly are the spreading your ideas for the purpose of stopping the US conversion to the metric system.


  4. Bill Dunning Says:

    Perhaps our friend would also prefer to compute the change in his pocket in terms of pounds, shillings, guineas, penece and farthings.

    The fact is that the most convenient system of just about anything is what you learned. That applies all the way from being uncomfortable outside the womb when you’re born into this “blooming, buzzing world” to learning how to use a fork instead of your fingers, learning a second (or subsequent) language, and learning an unfamiliar set of measurements.

    Some people cannot accept that there is any better, or perhaps even any other, system than the one they know. The child who says “have I ever eaten this food before” feels that way.

    Mark Twain writes, in “Huckleberry Finn,” about an encounter with people who speak French, and the reaction of an entrenched English monoglot, “Well, if he’s a man, why don’t he *talk* like a man?” — meaning, speak English so I can understand him. That’s the classic example of being closed-minded, and we may be sure that Twain intended it as a commentary on the way some people think — about a lot of things.

    People in the U.S. don’t want to go metric … because it’s easier not to change. Newton’s First Law applies to minds as well as material objects. The point is correctly made that the U.S. is, technically, metric. The meter is the standard, and miles are defined in relation to the meter. Likewise for the pound as a certain fraction of a kilogram, and so forth. But old habits die hard.

    It’s ironic that the Founding Fathers decided on a decimal currency unit with 1/100 units called cents, but never went the rest of the way in adopting the new metric system from France while they were at it. It was probably too new and untried, so they were being cautious. In fact, it took almost 200 years for our nation’s stock exchanges to give up “pieces of eight,” eigths of a dollar, in quoting prices. Now they use decimals, just like the rest of us.

    We are, in fact, edging our way toward metrication. As more of the world wakes up to it, our exports will have to conform. We already buy our soft-drink in liters, and standardized wine bottles a few years ago at 750 mL. We have, of course, decimal money, so we *do* learn how to compute that way. It will simply take a couple of generations, until the babies who grow up learn to think that way from the start.

    It’s like language. If you grow up learning English, or French, that’s your “mother tongue” no matter what you may add to it later. Once we have enough road-signs in km, packages in liters, and so on, it will happen. Some day, people will read about miles and pounds in old dusty books and think them just as quaint as the Biblical cubits of Noah’s ark.

  5. Hey Paul, nice rant, BUT

    I often hear the “we don’t need no foreign rulers” argument from metric opponents. Although we chose to remove the foot of King George from our necks in 1776, we have apparently chosen not to remove it from our schools, measurement tapes, etc. As we did NOT avail ourselves in the improvements of the Imperial system of 1824, we cling to a gallon and bushel approved by British
    Parliament in 1707. (yes the British system has changed over time, and scarcely been “fixed” for 1000 years).

    A few other points:
    #2. Congress is indeed granted the power to fix the system of measurement by the Constitution and delegates it to the Department of Commerce (specifically NIST).

    #6. The metric system was originally invented by the French. Since 1875 (Treaty of the Meter), all improvements have been by an International consortium of the those countries (including the US) which signed. This allowed the system to be updated for modern inventions, whereas the British system stagnated. It has no units for the measurement of electricity, magnetism, or light, and still measures power in horses. How peasant-agrarian.

    #7 The intial definition of the meter was a ten-millionth of the polar quardrant, and was slightly in error. However, this was fixed before the end of the 18th century, and it was defined as the length of a standard bar (same way as the British defined their yard (and our yard; we bought our standard yard from them). The definition was refined (but no change in length as far as anyone can tell) in 1960 to a number of wavelengths of light, and later to a declared value for the speed of light and definition of the second.

    #9 The USGS never surveyed in feet. They survey in meters and multiply by a constant to make “feet” for everybody else. The 3600/3937 m definition was the ONLY definition of the foot in the US beginning 1893. However, in WWII, we noted, on precision-fit parts, our foot and the UK foot were slightly different., and parts didn’t fit A council of English-speaking nations reconciled their feet in 1958, resulting in the “International” foot the US adopted in 1959. It is true that the Survey foot remains for old maps. Since the new datum known as NAD83, some States cling to the Survey foot, some use the International foot, and some use meters, so we have a major mess.

    #10. The Mars Climate Orbiter crashed because one US vendor failed to comply with the terms of the purchase order and used Customary units instead of the specified metric without telling NASA. NASA failed to find the error in their system checks.

    #11. The high price of gasoline in Europe has little to do with units and has everything to do with their system of taxation. They tax fuel much more than the US; we all pay the same price for crude at the wellhead.

    There’s more wrong with your post but that’s enough

  6. JRodriguez Says:

    Maybe Paul is a defective and doesn’t support 10 fingers or 10 toes and therefore does not see the ease of base 10 (or maybe he was beat as a child with a meter stick, I dunno)

    I think it’s strange that the second is considered a metric measurement, when it is not really used metrically when greater than a whole. Now basing measurment of the zodiac is really old school. And what about degrees? Why 360 and not 100?

    Go Metrics!
    Go Celsius!
    Go Metric Time! (posted at 35.34 o’clock UMC)

  7. I agree with paul. switching to metric would confuse too many people. think about it ? how many high scholl graduates know which is more .33334 or 1/4 . Only the scientist could figure it out, we would be lost..

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