...kilometers an hour. With the country concerned with saving gas by increasing mileage, this might be the right time to bring speed limits down to about 62 miles per hour. But our real crisis is not gas prices, but the state of science education in the United States. Failing to go metric is exacting a big cost on our native production of engineers and physicists.
Science is conducted in the metric system. Period. And American students do not speak or think metric.
For instance, how far did you drive today? Perhaps sixteen miles. How many yards is that? How many feet? How many inches? An American student is grabbing for a calculator to multiply by 1760 and 5280 and again by 12.
Meanwhile, foreign students who travel sixteen kilometers can instantly respond to the same problem of smaller units: 16,000 meters, 1,600,000 centimeters and 16 million millimeters. And they never reach for a calculator. This ease of internal conversion among metric units cascades as physics and engineering questions build into more complex units.
We have been crippling our science students for generations. Fortunately, we had a large number of foreign students coming to our college engineering classrooms. Over ninety percent of American terminal degrees in engineering go to foreign-born students. Over half of the engineering faculty in U.S. universities are foreign born.
However, the standard of living in other countries is dramatically improving. Better opportunities “back home” reduces the number who stay in the United States, we are beginning to see a brain drain. Our supply of engineers and physicists has become a national emergency. While there are many problems with K-12 science education, failure to “go metric” is one that we could solve quickly. And with the price of gas making conservation of gas mileage critical, now is the time to act.
Previous attempts at metric education made three major mistakes.
We should never teach students conversion between metric and non-metric. There is no need to learn that there are about 2.2 pounds in a kilogram or an inch is roughly 2.5 centimeters. The advantages of the metric system are within that single system. Cross-conversion is unnecessary and only slows student learning. Non-metric units must be dropped completely.
Secondly, many teachers forced students to learn every deci- and deka- and hecta- and milli- and apply each to every unit from meter to gram. But many metric combinations are never used. This over-teaching made earlier attempts at metric conversion unnecessarily complex and burdensome.
Finally, and most important of all, the general population must change to metric use alone for road signs, weather forecasts, everything. In previous attempts to teach the metric system, students left our classrooms to enter a world where gas was still pumped in gallons. We all ignored the bank temperature sign in centigrade and waited until it flashed Fahrenheit.
Anyone who has visited a foreign country knows that within a week, you know that “30 degrees” is pretty warm. We can all “think metric” within a couple of weeks when metric is all around us. Canned foods are already labeled in metric. And so is your car speedometer. It is time for us old geezers to get out of the way and stop crippling our next generation of students. America has to start growing more of its own engineers and physicists.
And if the 100 kilometers-per-hour is too slow for you, we can make the speed limit 120. In any case, you will be appalled when the traffic policeman says he clocked you going 140!
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.