Metric System Thriving In Nation's Inner Cities

A Presidential Award For Metric Achievement hangs in an area of Detroit renowned for its metric use.

WASHINGTON, DC–Despite other academic shortcomings, inner-city youths possess a firmer grasp of the metric system than their peers in suburban and rural areas, according to a Department Of Education study released Monday.

"While the typical teen has only a vague notion of what a kilogram is, teens in the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles were thoroughly familiar with this unit of metric measurement," said Ira Danielson, the researcher who spearheaded the study. "They were able to identify a kilogram of weight by merely tossing it back and forth in their hands."


According to Danielson, young people in America's urban centers are so familiar with the kilogram that they have developed a system of abbreviations for the measurement, such as "kilo" or even "ki" (pronounced key).

"Most of the teens, even those reading at a fourth-grade level, were familiar with the gram as a base unit that can be either compounded or divided," Danielson said. "Finally, here's an area where at-risk urban youths can really shine."

In addition to their expertise with grams, urban youths proved knowledgeable about other metric units, including the millimeter, cubic centimeter, and liter.


"They were surprisingly familiar with metric measurements in the medical field, aware that liters of blood are used in an emergency room and that certain medications are injected in cc's or mls," Danielson said. "They also knew a great deal about ounces, but we preferred to focus on their metric expertise."

Danielson said the discovery of the metric knowledge came as "a wonderful surprise."


"A few months ago, we were conducting a study to ascertain the basic skill level of high-school freshmen with poor attendance records–truant 14- to 15-year-olds who hadn't set foot in a classroom in months," Danielson said. "In the course of this study, an amazing pattern of metric expertise emerged among these kids. Upon discovering this pocket of knowledge, we knew we had to explore it further."

In a follow-up study titled "Metric Skills Among The Economically Disadvantaged," Danielson and his team of researchers discovered that not only did the youths score higher in metric knowledge than any other demographic, but many could also distinguish among the smallest variations in size and amount.


In one test, subjects were asked to follow a recipe for "metric-weight chocolate-chip Cookies." Researchers found that the teens had a natural ability to estimate measurements of sugar, flour, and baking powder without using any measuring tools. When the use of a balance scale was required, the teens knew exactly how to operate it.

"Y'all need 500 grams of flour," said Erick Boykins, a 16-year-old study participant from Newark, NJ, scraping out a small pile of flour with a razor. "That's half a kilo right there. Now the recipe says we gotta cut it with 200 g's of sugar."


After combining all the ingredients, Boykins deftly divided the dough into 50 lumps of cookie dough almost identical in weight.

The cookie test was cut short by the disappearance of 25 scales, but results are still being called "conclusive."


Hoping to use the youths' metric zeal as "a springboard to further learning," the Department Of Education has launched "Da Math Skillz" program.

"As any good teacher knows, it's important to start with a foundation of knowledge and build on that," Danielson said. "Our plan is to begin with grams and millimeters, then move on to other metric units like newtons, amperes, and candelas."


The program, however, has run into some early snags.

"The youths seem to have some large blind spots in their knowledge," Danielson said. "For example, they know millimeters very well and can distinguish between something that's 9mm wide and something 7.62mm wide, but for some reason, not one of the teens had ever heard of a hectare. And though they know how much volume a cc represents, none knew it stood for cubic centimeter."


Nevertheless, metric-use advocates were pleased to hear about the new metric-education initiative.

"For some unfathomable reason, the U.S. is the only major industrialized nation in the world not using the metric system," said Dr. Michael Lenzi of UCLA's Center For Statistical Data. "At long last, it appears that the metric system is being embraced by a progressive segment of the population outside the scientific community."


Such trends, Lenzi noted, often originate in major cities before spreading to the rest of the nation.

"While metric awareness is strongest in the cores of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, data indicates that it's spreading into smaller cities like Wichita, Portland, and Columbus, and even into the suburbs," Lenzi added. "That's an educational trend you've got to love."


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