Measuring Reality

I want to take this opportunity to express my best wishes and prayers for the families that have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey. What inappropriate timing of the hurricane’s landfall, as the school year has just begun. I am wondering if teachers are going to take the opportunity to address the issues of such a devastating event. The overarching word that comes to mind is “magnitude.”  A great lesson on the “magnitude” of the storm is defined by statistics. If your school is not addressing the fallout from such a disaster, then you can certainly support your child’s fluency in measurement with discussions at home.

My experience is that measurement, one of the bridges to number sense fluency, is not often embraced in the math classroom. In fact, if you look at math textbook and worksheet problems, there is rarely a unit of measurement (foot, inch, centimeter, liter, yard, etc.) associated with a perimeter/area problem. Students who are taking science courses will more likely be introduced to measurements that will be taken in a science lab for specific courses (biology, chemistry, physics, earth science).

As a science teacher (physics, earth science, and environmental), I made sure that my students were introduced to the measuring tools (rulers, protractors, graduated cylinders, triple beam balance scales, barometers, clinometers, anemometers, ammeters, and voltmeters, to name a few) and how to use dimensional analysis to transition between the metric and English measuring systems. I also made sure that students were familiar with the math skills and concepts that matched scientific formulas applied to solving real world problems.

As a consultant for the last decade, I have noticed that the use of measurement tools (rulers, protractors, etc.) is often not addressed in the lessons; even though “Using math tools appropriately to make precise measurements” is one of the 8 math practices that format the Common Core math, as well as any other machination of the best approach to learning mathematics.

True story: I was working with a teacher who taught high school trigonometry. We were reviewing student scores on the NYSED (New York State Education Department) Algebra II/ Trigonometry Regents exam. That year, one problem on the exam asked students to use a measurement given in yards to find the solution to the nearest inch. None of the students were able to calculate the correct answer because they did not know that one yard equaled 36 inches. The teacher was shocked because she “told the students a million times” that one yard equaled 36 inches. I asked her how many times she took out the yardsticks and had the students use the yardsticks to measure the length of the hall, then convert their answers to inches. She said, “None.” Students will not internalize measurement units if they do not experience measurement with the appropriate tool.

In fact, when I go into schools to work with math teachers I can rarely access a class set of yard or meter sticks – let alone “one foot” rulers. Using measurement tools does not show up in secondary classrooms. When I work with high school geometry teachers who are wondering why their students cannot grasp angle measure, I ask how many times a protractor was used to measure angles. The answer I get is, “Why use a protractor? Students are not allowed to use a protractor on the Regents exam.”

From my experience teaching high school physics I found the majority of students did not know how to use a protractor as juniors/seniors. My physics students had to learn to use the protractors and rulers to solve vector problems by drawing a diagram of the problem to scale. I also required my students to master the ruler, and be able to convert units within, and between the English and metric systems. They needed to learn dimensional analysis to give the answer to a physics problem in the unit measure requested. Having students take physics in tenth or eleventh grade boosts their math skills. In the Pelham School District (21 years ago) all students were required to take physics early in 10th and 11th grades. The math chair was very happy that year, as she had 100% passing on the NYSED Algebra II/Trigonometry Regents – she thanked me for teaching vectors.

Back to measurement in the real world. This is a perfect time to tie measurement into Harvey. There are many units of measurement that can be studied. Drag out the rulers, measuring tapes, measuring cups, maps. How much of an area was flooded? Just telling students does not bring home the magnitude of the storm. One could:(1) measure the area of a room (length and width in feet) and calculate the area of the room in square feet; then divide that area “into” any area affected by the flood to find out how man rooms the flood area would cover. There is an interesting stat that 1inch of rainfall on 1 acre of land weighs 113.3 tons. (2) measure the height of a wall in the room (in feet) and then multiply the area of the room by the height to calculate the volume of the room in cubic feet;  then divide the volume of water that fell on the flood area by the volume of the room to find how many rooms would fit in the volume of water the fell on Houston (1 cubic foot of water equals 7.48 gallons or 28.32 liters in volume).

For the more advanced child, you can calculate the amount of miles the hurricane moved in a day by using the miles per hour rate on the weather channel. Compare rates such as the number of yearly rainfall in Houston (49.76 inches per year) to Harvey’s 50 inches that fell upon Houston in just 9 days. What was the rate of change? Why is that important to know?

Discuss Harvey’s devastation of homes and businesses. The costs to rebuild after the storm are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions. How big is a billion? Geodesic domes are the strongest structures on Earth (see picture below). Dome structures can withstand winds over 200 miles per hour.  How can homes be redesigned for a natural disaster complete with escape pods and stocked with supplies?


geodesic dome

Harvey and, now Irma (a hurricane the size of Texas) making landfall on Florida will provide a magnitude of real world measurement stats. The more students use measurement in the real world, the more proficient they will be in understanding place value, fractions/decimals/per cent, rates.


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