``Metric skills are absolutely essential to scientific research,'' says Marsha Lakes Matyas, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) project on women and science. Nevertheless, says Gerald Kulm, a project director in the AAAS directorate on education and human resources, ``the attention to the metric system has been up and down.''
The metric system was in vogue in the ``mid- to late 1970s,'' says Dr. Kulm. Organizations published educational materials to help teachers incorporate the metric system into their classes, and some textbooks shifted ``almost exclusively'' into metrics.
``Since then, it has just about completely moved back or reverted [the other way] .... You hardly ever see workshops or attention to helping teachers teach the metric system. It's pass'e, out of date.''
One reason for the decrease in emphasis, says Kulm, is that the education problems of the United States have grown so much in recent years that the importance of teaching the metric system ``has paled in comparison to the more fundamental problems of just teaching kids to think and apply mathematics.''
For example, Kulm says, it isn't that school children don't understand how to measure something using the metric system, but that they don't understand fundamental concepts about measurement itself.
Thomas Romberg, director of the National Center for Research in Mathematical Sciences Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, agrees. ``Measurement is a process of doing something, and that doesn't lend itself to a standardized tests,'' says Dr. Romberg. ``If you want to know if a kid can measure something, hand him a ruler and tell him to go measure it.'' Since the skill is not tested, he surmises, it is often glossed over in textbooks and by teachers.