Especially JCE: December 2016

Sharing the topics of measurement and the metric system could at first thought be seen as largely a visual endeavor. Students might measure the lengths of various objects and then convert their results from one metric prefix to another. Ditto mass or volume, with their respective measuring tools. What if the sense of touch could be incorporated to provide a different aspect of learning, beyond simply manipulating the objects?

The authors of Communicating Science Concepts to Individuals with Visual Impairments Using Short Learning Modules (available to JCE subscribers) in the December 2016 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education do just that.


Stender et al. offer four brief modules, including one focusing on the metric system, that are designed for use in an informal setting, although they could easily be incorporated into the classroom. The modules “are designed to educate the general public, including both those who are sighted and those with BLV [blindness or low vision].” All four use either a tactile or auditory learning experience. I was particularly struck by the metric system module, in that it would help students of any visual level to experience the differences between metric prefixes in a new way.

The setup is not difficult to construct and could be saved from year to year. A wooden board one meter long serves as the base (see the article's figure 1 photograph below). The authors’ supporting information document suggests a pine board, but any smooth, inexpensive wood could be used, such as hardboard cut down to size, or even sturdy cardboard. Objects related to the different prefixes—decimeter, centimeter, millimeter, etc.—are attached to the board. “For this purpose, we used one 1 dm rubber disk, an array of 1 cm diameter rubber disks, and cutouts of P20 (ISO scale), 150 (CAMI scale), 1000 (CAMI scale), and 2000 (CAMI scale) grit sandpaper corresponding to 1000, 100, 10, and 1 µm sand particle sizes.” The larger rubber disk is a furniture slider (4 in. / 100 mm) and the smaller disks are surface guard vinyl bumpers (3/8 in. / 10 mm). Since only a small amount is needed of each sandpaper, a local woodworker could be asked if he or she could provide some of the different grits needed.

Figure 1 - Reprinted with permission from Communicating Science Concepts to Individuals with Visual Impairments Using Short Learning Modules, Stend, Newell, Villarreal, Swearer, Bianco and Ringe. Journal of Chemical Education, 93 (12), 2052-2057. Copyright 2016 American Chemical Society.

When done one-on-one with a facilitator, the module took 5 to 10 minutes. Participants touch the various objects on the board, as well as the length of the board itself, and discuss that each object is smaller by a factor of 10 than the one before it. They also connect the idea of nanotechnology to the objects; “Participants are told that the lower end of the nanoscale includes objects that are another 3 orders of magnitude below the smallest features on the board.” While the activity was described for use with a facilitator, the authors also plan to set up the metric module so that it could be done without a facilitator, by adding Braille labels and explanations.

More from the December 2016 Issue

Mary Saecker’s JCE 93.12 December 2016 Issue Highlights shares more from this month’s issue of the Journal. As always, ChemEd X would love for you to offer your take on any article from this or a past issue of the Journal. All it takes is a short blog post! Start by submitting a contribution form, explaining you’d like to contribute to the Especially JCE column. Questions? Contact us using the ChemEd X contact form.