Team Metric believes there is an association between customary unit instruction and America’s well-recognized difficulty in understanding fundamental concepts in science. During the week of March 12, 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that a large consumer advocacy group was lobbying the FDA to consider removing grams from food labels and replacing the unit with teaspoons. The group argued that most Americans do not fully understand how much sugar they consume. They are most likely correct. The consumer group conducted a study and discovered that 70% of Americans do not intuitively understand what a gram means.
Could the U.S.’s lack of basic scientific knowledge (difference between mass and volume, difference between force and weight, and even the difference between mass and weight) be directly correlated to the limitations of our customary units? Team Metric believes so. Most Americans understand the world through hazy, incoherent approximations of customary units only. In the metric system, however, the definitions and applications of measures demand a basic understanding of the fundamental concepts in science.
Since all units in the metric system have the same relationships, students in academically high-performing countries have mastered basic measurement by middle school. Not coincidentally, these students often test higher in math and science than American students. In the United States, most students never become proficient in customary units. In fact, most U.S. students never become proficient in either “system.” This is a great injustice to U.S. students as it obstructs their ability to understand Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and hinders their employment opportunities. But in the U.S. we have both proficiency and interest issues.
In general, most people are not interested in areas they believe are beyond their comprehension. Irrationally, the U.S. has a negative belief that mathematical ability is a “gift.” We have encountered parents stating their child is just not a “math person.” Teachers and parents often form these biases very early, and they are carried forward throughout life. Team Metric believes the use of customary units contributes to this belief by convoluting concepts, leading to misperceptions of complexity. As a country, we must strive to remove obstacles towards academic and economic success—the most foundational of which is dual measurement instruction. We must approach STEM-literacy as high-performing countries do. We must drill in the same message to parents, students, and teachers—that STEM understanding is not an innate ability for a chosen few. Rather, success in STEM fields is a reward for hard work and the determination to master interesting, but sometimes difficult, subject matter.