Before you jump straight into metric conversions, give your students a concise introduction to the metric system. Explain the purpose of the metric system and give them useful examples of when they can use metrics in real-life situations. One good example is how we use liters to measure liquids. You can also show them how we incorporate centimeters and millimeters on our standard rulers.
According to Eric Carlson from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, sixth-graders should have a comprehensive understanding of the metric system by the end of the school year. They should be able to measure objects using the appropriate metric units and know how to quickly convert between them. Even though metric conversions require nothing more than basic multiplication and division skills, American students can still have a hard time grasping them because they are used to using the standard system in their day-to-day lives.
Make a metric chart in class that the students can look at as a visual aid to help them understand how metrics are easily converted by powers of 10. For example, "10 millimeters = 1 centimeter, 10 centimeters = 1 decimeter, and so on...." Make separate charts for length, area, mass and volume.
Use approximate comparisons to help your students associate metric measurements to ordinary things. For example, 1 kilometer is roughly the length of nine football fields, and 1 meter is half the length of the average door. This will help your students begin to recognize which units are appropriate for a given measurement. If your students know that a raisin is approximately 1 centimeter long, they'll know not to use meters when measuring something that is small like a raisin.
Have your students make their own metric rulers and start measuring objects in the classroom and at home. Once your students have a firm understanding of how the metric system works and can use metrics to make their own measurements, they are ready to begin conversions. Take down the metric charts and have your students begin to make conversions. Have them use their own measurements as the basis for their conversions. Start with simple conversions, such as millimeters to centimeters, and decimeters to centimeters, before moving on to more challenging conversions.
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