Teaching Measurement Through Science

Use these lesson plans to give your students real world practice with measuring distance, mass, and volume.

By Jennifer Sinsel


Teaching Measurement Through Science

In many classrooms, measurement concepts are often practiced using assigned problems requiring conversions, identifying correct measurements from pictures, and basic measurement of various lines on a worksheet. After completing these types of problems, students often show a basic comprehension of measurement, but many aren’t able to apply this information to the real world.

Integrating math measurement standards with science is one way to give some life to this seemingly boring topic. By giving kids a reason to develop skills in measuring distance, volume, and mass through scientific inquiry, they will more rapidly and completely internalize the concept. For example, after introducing length and distance, I often present teams of students with the following scenario:

Greetings! We are a large aerospace corporation looking to develop two new types of aircraft. The first type must fly great distances, while the second must be very accurate when dropped from a high altitude. Your job will be to create two prototypes – one that will fly the greatest distance and one that will come as close as possible to a target when dropped from a height of two meters. Your materials may consist only of copy paper, tape, paper clips, and/or cardboard. You have exactly one week before the competition. Prizes will be awarded to teams demonstrating the most success in each category!

Throughout the week of researching, designing, building, testing, and redesigning, students practice basic measurement skills in real world fashion. As a class, we discuss the best units to use for the distance competition (students generally decide on feet or meters) and the accuracy competition (inches or centimeters from the target’s center). We talk about why people generally don’t use millimeters to calculate long distances or kilometers to measure small lengths, and students quickly see the value in making and recording accurate measurements. As they conduct test flights in the gym, their learning is definitely evident!

When introducing volume, I first show students how to use a graduated cylinder. This is an important tool in science, and understanding its use is vital for many scientific investigations. To find out how much liquid is in the graduated cylinder, it’s important to hold it at eye level and read the bottom of the meniscus, or the bottom of the curve of liquid inside. Most graduated cylinders measure milliliters (ml), and students can get lots of practice with them by designing an investigation with antacid and film canisters (NOTE:  Use only the canisters that lock in the inside, not the outside, for this investigation). 

To get started, demonstrate what happens when an antacid tablet is placed in water inside a film canister with the top closed. After several seconds, the canister will POP into the air, much to the delight of your class! Now that you have their attention, pose the question, “If an antacid tablet is placed inside a film canister, what amount of water will cause the canister to pop in the shortest amount of time?” Students will become animated as they discuss the best way to go about finding the answer, and you will have achieved the dual purpose of getting them to think like scientists and practicing measurement at the same time. In addition, since most children love anything resembling an explosion, this is always a very popular activity!

For more ways to teach measurement using scientific inquiry, try one of the following lesson plans:

Measurement and Science Lessons:

Gummy Bear Mass, Volume, and Density  

In this lesson students learn how an object can change when placed in liquid. Students use gummy bears to learn about mass, volume and density.

Measurement and Variation

Students use a peanut as a means of learning about scientific observation and measurement. They identify the characteristics of their particular peanut, make a sketch of it, and write a description of it. Then they put it in a bag with other peanuts and try to identify it. This is a really creative way to get students to hone their observation skills.

Measure a Tree

In this lesson students learn about both scientific and mathematical problem solving by measuring the height of a tree. Students have to use ratios and set up equations to calculate the height of the tree. This is an interesting way to get students thinking about the ways scientists make their measurements and collect data.

Fun With Rainfall Measurements

Students learn how rainfall totals are gathered in this lesson. They use a rain gauge to measure how much rain falls in a week. They collect the data and then analyze the results.

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel