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Measurement comparisons matter

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We recently found on our Facebook page that one post outperformed any other post in the 6 years since we created Maths Matters Resources. It relates to Length Measurements and is a graphic designed for Northern Territory Tourism.

So why is this height graphic so amazing? It very clearly shows us well-known tourist icons that help us visualise the actual height measurement of Uluru in the Northern Territory.

The ability to accurately measure height and length seems to be important to every culture on earth. You could fill a page with all the different words associated with length e.g. circumference, distance, kilometre, shorter than, furlong, as long as, narrow, centimetre.

The funny thing is, in length measurement, everything is relative. There is no higher than or not as high as, longer than or shorter than without a second length for comparison. A snake is longer than a crocodile only in some, not all circumstances. You are shorter than the height of most doors, but not all doors. You need at least two things to measure before you can make your judgment.

You can now easily estimate height using the icons on this graphic. The Eiffel Tower is almost as tall as Uluru so those of you who have visited Paris will have a pretty good sense of what that looks like. Similarly, if you have been to Egypt, the height of Uluru is about as high as two Pyramids of Cheops.

You can also think about length. Uluru appears to be a bit longer than 5 Sydney Harbour Bridges. If you are a Sydney-sider, that helps you imagine the actual Uluru rock far better than just saying it is 348 m high and 3.6 km long. The graphic doesn’t show the actual width measurement in metres of the bridge but you can imagine the image repeating more than 5 times to measure the same width as Uluru. The arch span is actually 504 m, plus the width of each pylon probably means the graphic image of Sydney Harbour Bridge represents a width of about 650 m.

The graphic also doesn’t mention that Uluru is about 1.9 km deep, has a circumference of 9.4 km and an area which covers about 7 square kilometres. Or that it takes about 3 hours to walk right around the circumference. Measurements galore.

The most important concept we can take from all this is that as humans we need help to visualise large measurements.

What are you doing to help your students do this? How high is your main school building for example? Perhaps you can find the tallest student in your class and make a paper strip to match this length. Everyone can estimate how many of these strips you would need to match the height of the building. You could then paste different colour copies of this length to make an even longer strip that has clearly marked sections. Is there somewhere you can go to drop this strip from a height to the ground? Using this measurement you can then estimate the height of your building e.g. 10 Jessicas. Check what you find against everyone’s estimates. Were they in the right ballpark? This paper strip can then be used to measure the width and circumference as well.