Measuring Length #02

(grades 6-10)
Soft-bound, 48 page book, 16 reproducible task cards, full teaching notes.

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Play with nonstandard units of measure, then graduate to the simplicity and ease of decimal-based centimeters. Read and report measurements with plus/minus uncertainty. Estimate the height of tall buildings; reinvent the measuring wheel; improvise meter tapes; design accurate nut-and-bold Vernier calipers.

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Table of Contents for #02 Measuring Length:

Preparation and Support

A TOPS Model for Effective Science Teaching • Getting Ready • Gathering Materials • Sequencing Task Cards • Long Range Objectives • Review / Test Questions

Activities and Lesson Notes

  1. 1. All Kinds of Measure
  2. 2. Metric Prefixes
  3. 3. Metric Equivalents
  4. 4. Miles and Kilometers
  5. 5. Estimate the Last Digit
  6. 6. Significant Figures
  7. 7. Hairline Measure
  8. 8. Agree / Disagree (1)
  9. 9. Agree / Disagree (2)
  10. 10. Norm Average
  11. 11. Long and Short

  13. 12. Rolling Measure
  14. 13. Nuts and Bolts (1)
  15. 14. Nuts and Bolts (2)
  16. 15. To the Moon
  17. 16. Line of Sight

Supplementary Pages

rulers (millimeter, centimeter, inch, other units...)


Complete Master List for #02 Measuring Length:

Key: (1st/2nd/3rd) denote needed quantities: (1st) enough for 1 student doing all activities; (2nd) enough for 30 students working in 10 lab groups all self-paced; (3rd) enough for 30 students working in 10 lab groups, all doing the same lesson. Starred* items may be purchased below.

  1. * 1/1/1: box paper clips
  2. 1/10/10: scissors
  3. 1/10/10: index cards (optional)
  4. 5/50/50: meters adding-machine tape
  5. * 1/1/1: roll clear tape
  6. 1/20/20: meters string
  7. 1/10/10: clean empty cans, 15 ounce size is best
  8. * 1/1/1: roll masking tape
  9. 3/35/40: sheets notebook paper
  10. 1/2/5: state road maps

  11. 1/10/10: pennies
  12. 1/5/10: calculators
  13. * 1/10/10: 1/2 inch inside-diameter hex-nuts and bolts with flat undersides, about 1 inch long
  14. 1/1/1: bottle white glue
  15. * 1/5/10: straight pins
  16. * 1/1/1: small piece aluminum foil

Convenient Shopping:

Aluminum Foil

regular strength, 20 square feet x 12 inches rolls

Buy aluminum foil here as a convenience item, or for less in many grocery stores.

Nut and Bolt

1/2 inch, steel

The bolt may be any length. We supply a 1 1/2 inch-long bolt with a 1/2 inch-inside-diameter nut to fit it, with 3/4 inch outside-diameter hex-heads on both pieces. Nut MUST screw up flush, to contact underside of bolt head. This is a specialty item for #02 Measuring Length.

Paper Clips

size #1, steel, box of 100

Paper clips have 1001 uses in TOPS experiments, and science in general. Feel free to use paper clips you already have, but be aware that different brands come in different sizes and weights. In experiments where uniformity is important, don't mix brands.

Straight Pins

steel, one and 1/16 inch long

Used in many TOPS experiments. Sometimes required for their magnetic properties. Don't purchase aluminum straight pins by mistake.

Tape - clear

3/4 inch x 1000 inch roll

Your standard desk tape with matte write-on surface.

Tape - masking

3/4 inch x 55 yd roll

A handy science supply used in most TOPS modules.

Teaching Tips for #02 Measuring Length:

We encourage improvisation - it's one of the main goals of our hands-on approach! You and your students might invent a simpler, sturdier or more accurate system; might ask a better question; might design a better extension. Hooray for ingenuity! When this occurs, we'd love to hear about it and share it with other educators. Please send ideas and photos to

Lesson by Lesson Objectives for #02 Measuring Length:

  1. Lesson 1: To measure length with thumb widths, paper clips and centimeters. To evaluate each unit as a measuring standard.
  2. Lesson 2: To define the decimal equivalents of metric prefixes, and use them in combination with other units of measure.
  3. Lesson 3: To get acquainted with meters, centimeters, and millimeters. To make an accurate meter tape to use in later activities.
  4. Lesson 4: To compare the length of a kilometer with the length of a mile.
  5. Lesson 5: To learn how to read a ruler accurately by estimating the last digit.
  6. Lesson 6: To distinguish between certain figures and uncertain figures. To appreciate that no measurement is exact.
  7. Lesson 7: To practice reading metric scales calibrated in centimeters and millimeters.
  8. Lesson 8: To agree with a friend, within acceptable limits of uncertainty, where the hairline crosses a scale.
  9. Lesson 9: To practice measuring line lengths in significant figures with centimeter and millimeter rulers. To estimate uncertainty as a plus-or-minus figure.
  10. Lesson 10: To determine how specific body measurements conform to general body proportion equations. To work with measuring uncertainty.
  11. Lesson 11: To practice measuring lengths of different magnitude. To estimate uncertainty.
  12. Lesson 12: To measure length using a rolling can. To estimate uncertainty.
  13. Lesson 13: To construct a vernier caliper that accurately measures small distances.
  14. Lesson 14: To recalibrate the vernier caliper in metric units and use it to measure short distances.
  15. Lesson 15: To learn to convert units of measure by multiplying and dividing so that unwanted units cancel out.
  16. Lesson 16: To project vertical height along the horizontal for easy measurement. To estimate uncertainty in the projection.

National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) for #02 Measuring Length:

TEACHING Standards

These 16 task cards promote excellence in science teaching by these NSES criteria:
Teachers of science...
A: ...plan an inquiry-based science program. (p. 30)
B: and facilitate learning. (p. 32)
C: ...engage in ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning. (p. 37)
D: and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning science. (p. 43)

CONTENT Standards

These 16 task cards contain fundamental content as defined by these NSES guidelines (p. 109).
• Represent a central event or phenomenon in the natural world.
• Represent a central scientific idea and organizing principle.
• Have rich explanatory power.
• Guide fruitful investigations.
• Apply to situations and contexts common to everyday experiences.
• Can be linked to meaningful learning experiences.
• Are developmentally appropriate for students at the grade level specified.

Unifying Concepts and Processes

NSES Framework: Systems, order, and organization • Evidence, models and explanation • Constancy, change, and measurement
Core Concepts/Processes: The metric system is a decimal-based standard of measure that the world scientific community recognizes.

Science as Inquiry (content standard A)

NSES Framework: Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations. • Design and conduct a scientific investigation. • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data. • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. • Think critically and logically to connect evidence and explanations. • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions. • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations. • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
Core Inquiries: To read scales accurately, write all the figures you are sure about, then read between the lines to estimate the last digit.

Physical Science (content standard B)

NSES Framework: Properties of objects and materials
Core Content: Standards of measure • Metric logic • Significant figures

Science and Technology (content standard E)

NSES Framework: Abilities of technological design • Understanding about science and technology
Core Content: A vernier caliper measures distance with greater precision, more significant figures.