‘Killer-joules’ and other abominations

As noted earlier, some students struggle with unit conversions. To take a simple example: if we need to convert 3.7 kilojoules (or ‘killer-joules’ as some insist on calling them *shudders*) into joules, then whilst many students know that the conversion involves applying a factor of one thousand, they do not know whether to multiply 3.7 by a thousand or divide 3.7 by a thousand.

Michael Porter shared a brilliant suggestion for helping students over this hurdle. He suggests that we break down the operation into two parts:

  • Consider if we are making the unit larger or smaller.
  • If making the unit larger, we must make the number smaller to compensate; and vice versa.

Let’s look at using the Porter system for the example shown above.

(Note: I have used kilojoules for our first example since, at least for GCSE Science calculation contexts, students are unlikely to have to convert kilograms into grams. This is because, of course, the kilogram (not the gram) is the base unit of mass in the SI System.)

By changing from kilojoules to joules we are making the unit smaller, since one kilojoule is larger than one joule.

To keep the measured quantity of energy the same magnitude, we must therefore make the number part of the measurement bigger to compensate for the reduction in size of the unit.

This leads us to the final answer.

Now let’s look if we had to convert 830 microamps into amps:

The strange case of time

Obviously 1 minute is a very small quantity of time compared with a whole week. Indeed, our forefathers considered it small as compared with an hour, and called it “one minùte,” meaning a minute fraction — namely one sixtieth — of an hour. When they came to require still smaller subdivisions of time, they divided each minute into 60 still smaller parts, which, in Queen Elizabeth’s days, they called “second minùtes” (i.e., small quantities of the second order of minuteness).

Silvanus P. Thompson, “Calculus Made Easy” (1914)

It is probable that the division of units of time into sixtieths dates back many thousands of years to the ancient Babylonians(!) Is it any wonder that some students find it hard to convert units of time?

We can use the Porter system to help students with these conversions. For example, what is 7 hours in seconds?

This type of diagram is, I think, very useful for showing students explicitly what we are doing.

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