Are weights and measures (together referred to as measurement) really that important?

Yes!  Measurement is an essential part of our everyday life. Everything that we purchase, create, design, and build uses weights and measures. Weights and measures assure that medical diagnostics are accurate and that design and manufacturing processes are precise and consistent. Proper measurements are required to ensure that satellite and computer networking systems allow the world to communicate quickly, accurately, and effectively.

How does measurement impact STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) education?

The sciences are built upon measurement! Measurement is the foundation on which we build STEM-literacy. Measurement may seem like a small part of the overall learning process, but in a world evermore dependent on the STEM industries, measurement has become as foundational as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

What is Measurement?

Measurement is the process of determining the ratio of a physical quantity, such as a length, time, or temperature. Measurements are expressed with numbers, allowing the logic, precision and power of mathematics to be brought to bear on the study of nature.

Correlation between Measurement Literacy and STEM success

Dr. John P. Smith, PhD, is an expert in measurement at Michigan State University. Dr. Smith recently concluded a multi-year (2006-2012) study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) entitled Strengthening Tomorrow’s Education in Measurement I and II. This two-part study, along with several others, emphasizes the strong correlation between understanding measurement and achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Here are the most pertinent results:

There are two kinds of quantities in the world that mathematics and numbers represent. There are collections of objects (discrete quantity) and there are measurable objects (continuous quantity). Currently, in U.S. classrooms we focus mostly on the former and avoid the latter. This means that less attention to measurement fails to prepare students to deal practically with the physical–that is, to measure things and think about measurement in their everyday world.

That’s the immediate impact…

Learning about these foundations of measurement further prepares students to comprehend more advanced mathematics and science. A lot of math and science is not easily accessible without understanding the basics of measurement, which in this country and most others is learned in the study of spatial measurement (length, area, and volume). (Smith 2012)

See for yourself, how metric units move gracefully from length, to area, to dry volume, and finally to liquid volume. Metric units and measures were designed to be related; these connections make understanding spatial measurement, the preferred U.S method for teaching measurement, easier to comprehend and easier to extrapolate.

U.S Students’ Poor Grasp of Measurement

Stated plainly, measurement is “the domain of least relative competence for U.S. students” (Barrett 2012). This finding is supported at the district, county, and state levels. In the U.S., weights and measures are generally learned in the study of spatial measurement (Smith 2012). Extensive evidence has shown, and continues to show, that U.S. students’ grasp of spatial measurement—length, area, and volume—is poor, despite the wealth of spatial experience and knowledge they develop and use outside of school. This evidence includes analyses from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of performance by 4th, 8th, and 12th graders (e.g., Blume, Galindo, & Walcott, 2007); cross-national comparisons such as TIMSS (National Center of Education Statistics, 1997); and smaller research studies that have focused on students’ patterns of reasoning, e.g., studies indicating that students often confuse area and perimeter (Chappell & Thompson, 1999; Woodward & Byrd, 1983). Where the NAEP results show low performance in the entire U.S. population, performance is weakest for low-income and minority students, who lag further behind white students in measurement than in any other content area (Lubienski & Crockett, 2007).

In other words, our kids can not measurement in either system of measurement.

Introduction to the new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. How many times is measurement listed as foundational to academic success?

For over a decade, research studies of mathematics education in high-performing countries have pointed to the conclusion that the mathematics curriculum in the United States must become substantially more focused and coherent in order to improve mathematics achievement in this country. To deliver on the promise of common standards, the standards must address the problem of a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Mathematics experiences in early childhood settings should concentrate on (1) number (which includes whole number, operations, and relations) and (2) geometry, spatial relations, and measurement, with more mathematics learning time devoted to number than to other topics. Mathematical process goals should be integrated in these content areas. —Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood, National Research Council, 2009

The composite standards [of Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore] have a number of features that can inform an international benchmarking process for the development of K–6 mathematics standards in the U.S. First, the composite standards concentrate the early learning of mathematics on the number, measurement, and geometry strands with less emphasis on data analysis and little exposure to algebra. The Hong Kong standards for grades 1–3 devote approximately half the targeted time to numbers and almost all the time remaining to geometry and measurement.— Ginsburg, Leinwand and Decker, 2009

Because the mathematics concepts in [U.S.] textbooks are often weak, the presentation becomes more mechanical than is ideal. We looked at both traditional and non-traditional textbooks used in the U.S. and found this conceptual weakness in both.— Ginsburg et al., 2005

There are many ways to organize curricula. The challenge, now rarely met, is to avoid those that distort mathematics and turn off students. — Steen, 2007