Using the Metric System

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The meter stick is divided into 1,000 mm and labeled with 100 cm.

The metric system is an internationally agreed system of measurement. It has been adopted as the official system of measurement in every country except for the United States, Myanmar, and Liberia.

The metric system is easy to learn and easy to use, largely because it is based on the decimal system and is rationally designed to be self-consistent and coherent.

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From its beginning, the main features of the metric system were the standard set of inter-related base units and a standard set of prefixes in powers of ten. These base units are used to derive larger and smaller units that replace a huge number of other units of measure in existence. Although the system was first developed for commercial use, the development of coherent units of measure made it particularly suitable for science and engineering.


The objective of this course is for students to learn to use the metric system of units when taking, recording, communicating, or using measurements.

All students are welcome; this course is especially oriented toward United States students who may not have used the metric system often.


The meter is the basic unit of length. A meter stick, shown in the image to the right, is one meter long. The millimeter, one one-thousandth of a meter, is convenient when smaller lengths are measured. The kilometer, one thousand meters, is convenient when longer lengths are measured. Students may also encounter the centimeter, equivalent to 10 millimeter or 1/100 meter

These units are often abbreviated as shown in the following table:

Unit Abbreviation Equivalence
Millimeter mm 1/1,000 of a meter
Centimeter cm 1/100 of a meter
Meter m
Kilometer km 1,000 meters

Automobile speeds are typically measured in Kilometers / hour.


  1. Obtain measurement devices marked in millimeters. Download and use this millimeter scale if you prefer to use it instead of some other scale.
  2. Obtain a meter stick, a measurement device one meter long often subdivided into millimeters.
  3. Obtain a device with distances marked in units of kilometers to use in measuring longer distances. This may be the odometer of a car, a cyclometer on a bike or a device specifically made for measuring such distances.
  4. Measure several objects you commonly encounter. Consider measuring your height, the dimensions of rooms where you live, the diameter of a tea cup or plate, the height of a table, the length of your thumb, the diameter of various coins, the thickness of various coins, the length of your house, the dimensions of some section of land, the length of the street you live on, the distance to a nearby house, store or school, etc.
  5. Write down the measurements as you take them.
  6. What units, millimeters, meters, or kilometers, are most convenient for each of the measurements you have taken?
  7. Notice if your automobile speedometer includes markings in kilometers / hour (e.g. Km/h) If so, notice the speed measured in these metric units as you travel.


The square meter is the basic unit of area. This is an area equivalent to a square measuring one meter on each side. Large areas, such as land areas, are measured in hectares. One hectare is 10,000 square meters. Larger areas are measured in square kilometers.

These units are often abbreviated as shown in the following table:

Unit Abbreviation Equivalence
Square Meter m2
Hectare ha 10,000 m2
Square Kilometer km2 1,000,000 m2 or 100 ha


  1. Use the measuring devices obtained for the previous assignment in this assignment.
  2. Measure various areas you commonly encounter. This may include the floor size of various rooms in your house, the area of your front porch, the area of a driveway, a playground, a park, and various parcels of land. These may include land areas near where you live, work, or play.
  3. Are square meters or hectares the more convenient units in each case?
  4. Write down the measurements as you take them.
  5. Look up the area of various parks, lakes, towns, cities, counties, states, or countries you are familiar with. Note how these are expressed in hectares or square kilometers.


The liter is the basic unit of volume. The milliliter, one thousandth of a liter, is convenient when smaller volumes are measured.

These units are often abbreviated as shown in the following table:

Unit Abbreviation Equivalence
Milliliter ml 1/1,000 liter
Liter L 1/1,000 cubic meter


  1. Obtain a measurement device marked in milliliters. This may be a measuring cup used in baking or some other device.
  2. Measure the volume of several objects you commonly encounter. Consider measuring a glass of water, a bottle of soda, or a spoonful of water.
  3. Write down the measurements as you take them.
  4. What units, milliliters, or liters are most convenient for each of the measurements you have taken?
  5. Look on the labels of various liquids you have around the house. This might include beverages, cleaning fluids, lubricants, or other liquids. It might also include purchases of gasoline, heating oil, or other bulk liquids. Note how these volumes are expressed in milliliters or liters.


National prototype kilogram K20, one of two prototypes stored at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which serve as primary standards for defining all units of mass and weight in the United States. This is a replica for public display, shown as it is normally stored, under two bell jars.

The kilogram is the basic unit of mass. The gram, equal to 1/1000 of a kilogram is convenient when smaller masses are being measured. The tonne, equal to 1,000 kilogram is used for larger masses. The kilogram is defined as being equal to the mass of the International Prototype of the Kilogram, from which the US prototype shown in the figure on the right was derived.

These units are often abbreviated as shown in the following table:

Unit Abbreviation Equivalence
gram g 1/1,000 kilogram
kilogram kg
tonne t 1,000 kilogram

Understanding Mass and Weight[edit]

In everyday usage, the mass of an object is often referred to as its weight, though these are in fact different concepts and quantities. In scientific contexts, mass refers loosely to the amount of "matter" in an object, whereas weight refers to the force experienced by an object due to gravity. When an object's weight (its gravitational force) is expressed in "kilograms", this actually refers to the kilogram-force (kgf or kg-f), also known as the kilopond (kp). This distinction is commonly ignored, and informally it is acceptable to express weights in kilograms, even when kilopounds would be the correct units.

Correspondence with Volumes[edit]

One litre is equivalent to the volume of a cube with edges of 100 mm and the kilogram was originally designed to be one litre of water at the melting point of ice.

The metric system is designed so that one liter of water (at 0 °C) weighs exactly one kilogram. Also, one milliliter of water weights exactly one gram. This allows simple conversion from volume to mass of water and can be used to estimate the conversion for fluids with similar density. A 2 liter bottle of soda weighs approximately 2 kilograms.


  1. Obtain measurement devices, such as a postal scale and a bathroom scale marked in grams and kilograms.
  2. Measure the weight of several objects you commonly encounter. Consider weighing a bottle of milk, a piece of fruit, a letter in an envelope, a small stone, and yourself.
  3. Write down the measurements as you take them.
  4. What units, grams, or kilograms are most convenient for each of the measurements you have taken?
  5. Look on the labels of various food items you have around the house. This might include beverages, or packaged food items. Note how these weights are expressed in grams or kilograms.


In the metric system, multiples and sub-multiples of units follow a decimal pattern. A common set of decimal-based prefixes that have the effect of multiplication or division by a power of ten are applied to units which are themselves too large or too small for practical use. We have seen examples of this where the prefix milli, as in milliliter refers to 1/1000 of a liter, and kilo as in kilometer refers to 1,000 meters.

Metric prefixes in everyday use are shown in the table on the right.

Metric prefixes in everyday use
Text Symbol Factor
tera T 1,000,000,000,000
giga G 1,000,000,000
mega M 1,000,000
kilo k 1,000
hecto h 100
deca da 10
(none) (none) 1
deci d 0.1
centi c 0.01
milli m 0.001
micro μ 0.000001
nano n 0.000000001
pico p 0.000000000001


Temperature is measured in degrees Celsius, also known as centigrade. From 1744 until 1954, 0 °C was defined as the freezing point of water and 100 °C was defined as the boiling point of water. Today a similar but more precise definition is used.

Useful references to keep in mind are:

Reference Celsius Degrees
Melting Ice 0 °C
Room temperature ~20 °C
Normal Human Body Temperature 37 °C
Boiling Water 100 °C


  1. Obtain a thermometer calibrated in degrees Celsius for use in this assignment.
  2. Measure the temperature of several items you commonly encounter. Consider measuring the temperature of melting ice, a freezer, a refrigerator, outdoor temperature, warm water, soup, boiling water, your body temperature.
  3. Write down the measurements as you take them.

Other Measures[edit]

The International System of Units, abbreviated SI, is the modern form of the metric system. It comprises a coherent system of units of measurement built on seven base units. It defines twenty-two named units, and includes many more unnamed coherent derived units. The system also establishes a set of twenty prefixes to the unit names and unit symbols that may be used when specifying multiples and fractions of the units.


  1. As you encounter units in the SI system beyond those covered above, learn the definitions of those additional units and practice using them.

Going Metric[edit]

To strengthen your understanding of the metric system, complete the following optional assignment.

Optional Assignment[edit]

  1. Read John Kasson’s Down Home Ye Olde Iowa Metric Cookbook.
  2. Dispose of all measuring devices that use units that are not metric.
  3. Replace them with measuring devices that use only metric units.
  4. Only use metric units when expressing measurement information.

Additional Reading[edit]

Students interested in learning more about the metric system may be interested in these materials.