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Warm-Up Activity: Measuring Ourselves

Using your own body, determine:

How many hands tall are you?
How many finger-widths tall is your head?
How many finger-widths is it from your
elbow to the tip of your finger?
Compare your results with your neighbors.

A Concise and Abbreviated History of


photo credit: Xavier de Jaurguiberry

image credit: Jerry Lipka et al

Diagram of Yupik (Alaska

Native) units of length

Relief carving of Ancient

Greek measurement using
hand span and foot
Diagram of Egyptian
definitions of cubit and

Units of measurement based on the human body

The Smoot

photo credit: Denimadept creative commons

The Harvard Bridge between Boston and

Cambridge, MA. The Harvard Bridge is 364.4
Smoots in length, plus or minus an ear.

photo credit: MIT museum via Dave Schumaker

Oliver Smoot being used to measure the

Harvard Bridge in 1958.

With trade and taxation came the need for

standardized units

photo credit: Andrew Robinson

Standardized weights from the Indus river valley

photo credit: Claudia Zaslavsky

Standard weights for measuring gold

dust used by the Asante of Ghana

photo credit: John Hill creative commons

A bronze ruler from the Han dynasty in China

Systems of measurement commonly used in the US:

The English or Imperial System

image credit: Ian Whitelaw

The early English inch was defined as the

length of three barleycorns laid end-toend

photo credit: Andrew Robinson

King George the III of Englands

standard weights from 1773.

Systems of measurement commonly used in the US:

The Metric System

Since 1983, the meter has been defined as

the distance that light travels in 1
299,792458th of a second
Commemorative stamp showing the
French Republic measuring one quarter of
the earths circumference the original
idea behind the meter

Systems of measurement commonly used in the US:

More about the metric system
1 cm
1 cm
1 cm

A cube of water with sides each 1 cm has

a mass of 1 gram
photo credit: Harry Turner, National Reseach Council of Canada

The Canadian Standard Kilogram. The

kilogram is the only unit in the metric
system defined by an actual object.

The nickel has a mass of 5 grams

Lipka, Jerry, Tod Shockey and Barbara Adams. Bridging Yupik Ways of
Measuring to Western Mathematics in Learning and Teaching
Measurement: 2003 Yearbook. Ed. Douglas Clements and George Bright. The
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc,
Reston, VA. 2003
Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Measurement. Thames and Hudson Ltd,
London, UK. 2007
Tavernor, Robert. Smoots Ear: The Measure of Humanity. Yale University
Press, New Haven, CT. 2007
Whitelaw, Ian. A Measure of All Things: the story of man and measurement.
Quid publishing, Hove, England. 2007
Zaslavsky, Claudia. Africa Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture.
Prindle, Weber, and Schmidt Inc, Boston, MA. 1973

Your turn: Discussion

In groups of 2 or 3, discuss the following
Why do we measure?
How do we choose what to use to measure?
Think not only in general, but also in the context
of your work in your program.