Boost for science and engineering undermined?

A recent report published in the US suggests that the UK Government’s plans to boost science and engineering may be undermined by its muddled policies on measurement units.

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced on 30 September a £400 million boost for science and engineering teaching at English universities. The Universities and Science Minister also said that only 6% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, so this package of support would also have a particular focus on encouraging women into these subjects. The announcement precedes “Tomorrow’s Engineers Week” which will take place from 4 to 8 November.

The full press release may be found at:

However, the attention of Metric Views has been drawn to recent research in the USA which suggests that the UK’s measurement muddle could undermine the government’s intentions.

The US study* was entitled, “Changing pre-service elementary teachers’ perceptions of teaching and learning the metric system.” Yes. Oh dear!

But among the authors’ observations and suggestions is the following:

“the customary system, with its wide use in everyday life, suppresses any meaningful development of cognition in metric measurements in American children.”

In the UK, we have proceeded further with the metric changeover than have the Americans, but there are still many instances where imperial measurements (known as ‘customary’ in the US) are still used, thereby reinforcing the disconnection between science, engineering and everyday life. Examples include measurement of body weight and height, advertisements for homes and offices, reporting in newspapers and on TV, and of course our road traffic signs.

The US study concludes by saying:

“Metric conversion is not only good for international trade and commerce and for science and business, but also for … children’s learning of mathematics.” To which, MV would add, “and for their perception of the relevance of science and engineering to everyday life”.

Incidentally, would not that £400 million cover any reasonable estimate of the cost of converting the UK’s distance and speed road traffic signs to show metric measures?

* The study was published in the June 2013 issue of the US “Journal of mathematics education” and is available on line at (16 pages).

5 thoughts on “Boost for science and engineering undermined?”

  1. Cliff Notes version: After reading the paper, I conclude that if elementary teachers (in training) understood the metric system themselves, they could teach it a hell of a lot better.

    In the US, what instruction there is (prior to chemistry & physics in high school) is endless conversion back and forth and essentially no practical use of the metric system in elementary grades (traditionally, grades 1-5). That really only changes for high school students on a science/technology college prep. track who take chemistry and physics in high school, and considerable time is spent teaching them to use the metric the system.

    The big buzzword here is STEM education (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and we seem to be doing a poor job of it.

    My other criticism of this paper is the somewhat hypothetical improvement of international trade. They seem entirely clueless that many American industries are partially or completely metricated and that the schools are churning out students quite ill-prepared to work there.

    We clearly need better metric education in the U.S. My criticism is that they somewhat understate how desperate the situation is.


  2. I have in front of me two letters from BIS and signed by the Rt Hon David Willetts, MP, received via my local MP, dated 2011 and 2012. The situation if anything has got worse.
    My comments on them cannot be repeated on public media and I refrained from taking up the offer to reply.
    Basically they say the metric muddle WILL continue and that is the way we like it, we will not be moved on this issue.
    From this stand point, any advancement in technology education, my own sphere of expertise, can go nowhere without 100% metric, 0% Imperial being implemented. I can see no useful function for the Imperial non-system at any level; it remains, in and beyond the 20th century, unfit for purpose in a technological age.
    Of course the UK’s measurement muddle will undermine the government’s intentions, unless the intentions are to continue the muddle which seems the case. This part of the press release got my attention … ‘to create a more educated workforce that is the most flexible in Europe’. My guess here is that the ‘most flexible’ bit means we can use two systems interchangeably when the rest of Europe (and most of the world) can only understand one system. If ‘we’ (not including ‘me’), are the only ones left that understand it, what is the point of it in the wider world?
    This can only lead to £400 million being largely wasted. I have often wondered just how much those at government level really know about technology and IT generally that very basic errors are made at every level and every step.
    WE (in UK and, if I may say so, USA) very much need a big change in mindset if we are not to be further overtaken by the rest of the world.


  3. Re your comment about the UK road signs. An announcement today by the DfT about a consultation on the Highways Agency being turned into a government-owned company contained the following quotes:-

    “motorists to have a greater say in how their roads are run and that is why I have proposed an independent watchdog – free from government – is set up to make sure the Highways Agency is delivering the wants, needs and expectations of motorists.”

    “making sure our roads are fit for the 21st century – supporting jobs and growth across the economy.”

    Is this possibly another opportunity for the UKMA to comment forcefully on changing our outdated signage to be fit for the 21st century? Incidentally, the costs would be a small fraction of the £2.6 billion savings predicted by the DfT.

    Open consultation at


  4. The press release notes on a number of occasions the following two themes:

    1. Much greater female participation in the sciences and technology. There has been evidence that, in general (and at the risk of sounding sexist, which this is not meant to be, just a statement of fact), women have a lower grasp of measurement than men, particularly metric measurement. Greater numbers of women in these science and technology fields will hopefully help rectify that situation.

    2. The term ‘world class’ was used at least twice. As the world (USA excepted) uses the metric system in its everyday life, then can we expect some effort towards the same happening here, and thereby make the UK ‘world class’? While the perception persists (aided and abetted by MPs who refuse to budge on the issue) that the UK has no intention of completing its metric conversion, the claim to be ‘world class’ sounds more than a little hollow.


  5. “the UK’s measurement muddle”
    Indeed it is a muddle rather than chaos, for to have chaos you must first have order. However, I would prefer the expression, “Imperial-metric mishmash”.
    Face it guys, Britain`s unsavable. Fly the coop, seek your fortune in the colonies.
    Jack, Japan Alps


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: