Body metrics: Helping students learn the metric system

by Stephanie Chasteen on February 21, 2009

Students really struggle with the metric system.  I know I still do.  I have a rough iea of how long an inch is, and how long a foot is, but I don’t have a great sense of how long a centimeter or meter is.  In this episode of Science Teaching Tips, TI staff educator Lori Lambertson tells us how she helps students get a handle on what the units really mean by using familiar objects — students’ own bodies.

Listen to the episode – Body Metrics.

There is only one episode of Science Teaching Tips remaining! There is no more funding to continue producing this podcast. If you’re interested in seeing this continue, please let me know (and perhaps I can scrape together some funding). If you have a suggestion of where we might find some dollars to keep producing this, please, do tell! It’s been a lot of fun and we have a lot of subscribers, I’d love to keep doing this.


sibylle February 22, 2009 at 1:10 am

Running is a nice way to learn kilometers – in cross country, students compete in 5ks. I’ve run 5k, 8k, plus 5 and 13-mile races and you notice the difference quickly.

Mandy February 23, 2009 at 2:59 am

I grew up in England and remember when England joined the European Union – that’s when we had to change to metric for many weights and measures. So I have a pretty good idea about conversions. That being said, I do struggle with miles and kilometers especially relative to car speeds and driving distances.

james February 28, 2009 at 5:21 am


I want you to remember this – because it’s from an outsiders viewpoint who isn’t a teacher, and sometimes incite from a non “ingroup” member is valuable

(or maybe it isn’t – take it or leave it)

But I think you should stop trying to come up with effective ways to teach science. Science is like Art, you just do it, and you need inspiration. Stop and think about it : If Copernicus, Galileo, or Kepler knew, (Or Marie Curie, or Feynman, or Dirac, or anyone.. etc. etc.) that what the secrets they discovered from Nature were being force fed to students and quizzed over them, they would all turn in their graves. They all did it for the fun of it, not for some odd desire to be a teacher. In my personal – perhaps off opinion – the people who try to teach it don’t understand it. You learn math by doing math, you learn physics by doing the physics and making sure you’ve got it all on your own, the same with Neuroscience, Biology, Chemistry, etc. And what these kids do on their own will involve fiddling with methods that spark their interesting – one demonstration thats “crafty” and designed to illustrate some concept will be ruthlessly boring and ridiculous to a student.

You shouldn’t ask “how can i get this concept across to a student” but “what were the mysterious that this discovery solved, and why was it so fascinating to the discoverer? How can I really appreciate this peice of information?”

It’s no coienidnece a famous einstein quote is this “for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom” – and it’s no coiencidence that the book (‘supposedly’) that reved Newton to science and chemistry was a book called “On Art and Nature”.

I think you’ll find, at least this will be common knowledge 100 years after we pass, that the brain processes art and abstraction in the way it does math and science, and that’s ubiquity between the two circuits.

You can’t teach someone to love Basketball. And you can’t teaach someone to be a scientist.
You should jsut give them the information, and if you want them to rememebr it, you can’t, your only hope is to assign people to teach a topic who are genuinely passionate about it, because circuits will be sparked in the brain of listeners that will gauge reward and interest, will facilitates memory as a secondary thing.

Hope this is ok!


james February 28, 2009 at 5:24 am

curse the written language, if only I was a beaver and could communicate with electromagnetic waves in my tail

james February 28, 2009 at 5:25 am

scratch that – platybus. not the beever (long day)

sciencegeekgirl February 28, 2009 at 6:13 am

You’re an interesting duck, James.

I agree with much of what you say about teaching science — that students learn physics by doing it on their own, by discovering, by following their interests. And that’s just what we’re trying to make science teaching — about discovering and enjoying the process of finding out about the world, rather than the awful boring rote “memorize these facts” style of teaching of the past. Keep reading — you’ll see that we disagree!

And also, I do believe that science (like art!) is a fundamental part of how humans interact with the world and each other, it’s how we make understanding (or beauty) and thus is something that it’s important that many people understand and appreciate — not just those who will become “scientists” in the professional sense of the word. We’re all scientists, really — we observe, predict, and figure things out. Science isn’t just for scientists!

tinaa September 29, 2009 at 2:21 am

well your insight has cerainly opened my eyes.
thank you james and sciencegeekgirl

Wacek November 4, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Make teaching metric system fun!
It requires a lot of ingenuity from a teacher! Read some pages from and some my articles on
Have a fun! Wacek Kijewski

beneficii April 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Another way to solve this issue would be to push for the metrication of the U.S.A., so that students can be familiar metric units coming into school, like they are in other countries.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: