Academic journal article Science Scope

Whatever Happened to the Metric System?

Academic journal article Science Scope

Whatever Happened to the Metric System?

Article excerpt

Byline: Donald Meissner

When I started teaching in 1968, one of the key topics I knew I had to teach was the metric system. My science education professor had assured all of us that we would be leading the United States into the metric age. There was no doubt! The NSTA journals also assured us that we had to teach the metric system to raise a generation that would easily transition into a metric world. All gasoline would be in liters; all grocery items would be in grams/kilograms; highway signs and tools would be metric; everything would be measured in the new metric units. I remember the debates on whether football fields would be changed to 100 meters or whether the 100-yard dash would be changed. Football stadiums did not change, but everyone runs the 100-meter dash these days.

In our junior high we made a concerted effort to use metric units, not just convert to them. The shop and home economics teachers reluctantly converted all of their work into metric units. It was a real inconvenience at first, but students took quickly to using metric measures in home economics and shop classes. In our science classes it was not much of a change because it was already the system used in science. In social studies we talked about leading the world into the metric age. After all, if we wanted to sell our products, or buy from metric countries, we would need to be a metric country. I felt like a pioneer guiding an old-fashioned generation into the future. It made so much sense!

So, what happened? After 33 years of teaching eighth-grade science and four years as a university science education professor, I don't see much happening in metric education. It is taught in the schools that I visit, but like any other topic. There is no talk of converting to this worldwide system of measurement. I recall clearly how exciting it was when Canada converted, and then Great Britain. The latter was so ironic because the Brits changed from their own system. The United States has uncharacteristically not been a leader or even a follower in measurement.

Where does that leave science teachers? Let us be honest. The average U.S. citizen does not have any interest in changing from a comfortable system they were born into. Plus, the U.S. government does not seem very dedicated to this cause. No politician wants to be singled out as pushing the system on the average citizen. Even our own country's space program did not require metric-only units for a major project! The loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 was attributed to a failure to convert English measurements to metric when programming the navigational software. As a result, the orbiter entered Mars's atmosphere and either burned up or crashed into the surface of the planet.

We have made some half-hearted attempts to ease into the metric system. For example, the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 passed by Congress recommended ways to adopt the metric system, but it was not their intention to convert every aspect of society to the system. For years, speed limits were posted in both mph and kph (my speedometer still lists both units), and product labels continue to list English and metric units. There has been very subtle metric progress since the 1970s. I am an idealist. Could we not again "preach the message" of the metric system?

Granted, most science teachers use the metric system in class because that's what science does. Can we do more? First, are we all using strictly metric units in labs, activities, projects, problems, and every teaching opportunity? It is too natural to use the English system. Perhaps we should ban English units in the classroom, just as some foreign language teachers ban the use of English in their classrooms.

Second, are we taking advantage of connecting the metric system with all subjects? The history of metric measurement in the world, and in the United States in particular, is fascinating. …

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