September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

The Metric System Stair-Step Conversion Practice

Posted: Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

by Amanda L. Smith

Gardener’s: Linguistic; Visual-Spatial; Bodily-Kinesthetic; Interpersonal; Logical-Mathematical
Bloom’s: Knowledge; Comprehension; Application

CA State Standards:
Investigation and Experimentation (Middle School grades 6-8)

Anticipatory Set/Objective:

  • Students will be able to: State the values of and abbreviations for each of the prefixes used in the metric system.
  • Students will be able to: Convert from one subunit to another subunit within a given unit of the metric system.

Key Vocabulary:
Length: the longest dimension of an object

Mass: the amount of matter in an object

Volume: the amount of space an object takes up

Gram: base unit of measure used for mass in the metric system

Liter: base unit of measure used for volume in the metric system

Meter: base unit of measure used for length in the metric system

Milli-: a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of one thousandth (10-3)

Centi-: a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of one hundreth (10-2)

Deci-: a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of one tenth (10-1)

Deka-: a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of ten (101)

Hecto–: a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of one hundred (102)

Kilo: a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of one thousand (103)


Introduction & Modeling:
Students will be shown a metric ruler and meter stick, and asked how these are organized. The teacher will explain that every metric device is arranged in factors of 10 (e.g., 10 cm = 100 mm; 1 m = 100 cm). This will be the basis of the lecture and further conversion discussions in class.

Guided Practice:
Students will be given the Metric System Stair-Step Conversion Practice worksheet, and the teacher will go over the basic conversion step method. Teacher can verbally say, “to the left, you divide!” and “to the right, multiply!” with enthusiasm while explaining to the class.

Use an overhead projector, digital projector, or draw the stair-step image on the whiteboard to help the students visualize how to move about the stair steps as you demonstrate the example problems with the class. Make sure to verbalize the phrases (as shown above) for each example problem you do with the class, and have your students use your finger to move from step-to-step with you as you demonstrate on the board.

If you want to add in one additional learning tool, ask your students to stand up behind their desk chair, and prepare them for the Metric Mantra and Dance. Recite the following example aloud to the class: “Okay class, we are going to convert from gram to kilogram…so we will dance/shuffle/move to the LEFT 3 times…here we go!”. (as the students move to the left, have them recite “to the left, to the left, to the left…MULTIPLY!” as they move the 3 steps). Do a few of these conversions while the students move to the left or right, and have them recite the mantra while they move through the classroom. This is a great way for the students to gain a basic understanding of how many times to move left or right (moving to the right, say, “to the right, to the right…WE DIVIDE!”. This will take some practice, but students will have a better understanding of the metric conversions if you put in the time. (plus, students always love to get up and move around when it is constructive learning).

Independent Practice:
Students will do seat work practice problems (options: mini whiteboards and dry erase markers are always fun and provide quick informal assessment; pencil and paper worksheet(s); or teacher can put problems on the board for students to do on their own). After students complete the assignment, make sure to provide answers to each practice problem, and demonstrate on the board how to use the stair-step method (and maybe even throw in a few dance moves and mantra reciting if the students are doing a good job!).

Near the end of the class, review with students the steps you need to follow to make metric to metric conversions by randomly calling on students. Then the teacher will give each student a post it note (or just a small half sheet of paper will be fine), then write one last problem on the board such as 0.000652 kg = _______ mg and ask students to write their answer to the problem.(Personally, I would try to make it a more challenging problem) . As students leave they will hand the teacher their post-it note with their answer. (This will give you one more quick chance to assess their understanding, and see if they are able to do a more complex problem before tomorrow’s lesson or to be able to complete tonight’s homework).

Provide students with a brief history of the attempts of the United States to convert to the metric system, and some of the debates that occurred. (The teacher may want to use this website, to create a handout or PowerPoint presentation to introduce the topic.)

Students will do a free-write using these discussion questions as a guideline: Why do you think it would be so hard for the United States to switch to the metric system? Do you think it is in the country’s best interest to overcome these difficulties? Why or why not? Do you think it is confusing that the United States uses a different measuring system from the rest of the world? What kinds of problems arise because of the use of a different measuring system?

Extra Credit or Extension Activity for Gifted Students:
Students will write a story, journal entry, or letter about a typical day if they were to wake up in a world that used only the metric system. The teacher will encourage the students to include more examples of metric measurements in their daily life, such as speed limit signs and the price of gas per liter.

Amanda L. Smith is a science teacher at Wilder’s Preparatory Academy Charter School and a member of CSTA.


Written by Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith is a science teacher at Wilder’s Preparatory Academy Charter School and a member of CSTA.

One Response

  1. could you put the stair step method on this website please

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.