Measurable You!

Grade Level: 6–11

Description: This lesson plan introduces Bertillonage (see the background information below) an anthropometric measurement system developed to identify and track people in the penal system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students conduct a guided experiment and discussions while collecting anthropometric measurements, exploring the impact of experimental errors in a scientific system, and explaining their observations/findings in writing.

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National science educational standards

Unifying Concepts and Processes:

  • evidence consists of observations and data on which to base scientific explanation.

Science as Inquiry:

  • technology and mathematics are used to improve investigation and communication.
  • scientific inquiry involves collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting gathered data.
  • scientific evidence is used to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations.

Science in Personal and Social Perspective:

  • societal challenges often inspire questions for scientific research.

History and Nature of Science:

  • science is a human endeavor and a part of society.
  • scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models.
  • scientific ideas may change as new evidence becomes available.
  • scientific inquiry includes evaluation of the procedures and results of scientific investigations.
  • diverse cultures have contributed scientific knowledge and technological inventions through time.

Learning outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Collect various anthropometric data in metrics
  • Compare and analyze different sets of measurements
  • Identify unknowns based on collected data
  • List two sources of experimental error when using measured data
  • Describe their findings in verbal and written formats

Background information

Alphonse Bertillon, a police department file clerk in Paris, developed a complex method of measuring and categorizing individuals during the second half of the 19th century. Also known as Bertillonage, this system collected numerous body measurements and categorized various facial features of a person, and was used in the United States and in Europe to identify criminals in the penal system from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. In addition to photographs of each individual, a set of complex anthropometric measurements and feature classifications were collected on a card, which was catalogued to serve as a unique identity card for that person. The complexity of the system made it difficult and it gave way to a new identification method—fingerprinting—in early 20th century.

Time needed

Two 40–45 minute class periods


  • string
  • meter stick
  • pen or pencil
  • small papers or 2X4 index cards with a unique I.D. (5 or more number and letter combinations—something that will be hard to remember) on each of them (one for each student)
  • a box or bag
  • overhead projector and transparency sheets
  • flip chart or black board
  • Bertillonage Measurement diagram (259KB, PDF)
  • Anthropometric Measurement Sheet (54KB, PDF)


(see background information above)
the study of human body measurements especially on a comparative basis, or for use in anthropological classification and comparison.


Lesson 1

[Teacher's Note: If necessary, include a brief review of the metric system before conducting step 7 during Lesson 1.]

  1. Assess students' assumptions about what makes each individual unique. Ask students which unique physical characteristics of a person may be measurable. Record students' responses on a blackboard/flip chart.
  2. Show the Bertillonage Measurement diagram transparency on an overhead projector and introduce the story of Alphonse Bertillon and Bertillonage (see Background Information). Explain that this was the first scientific identification system developed before fingerprinting or DNA testing systems became available.
  3. Review the students' responses recorded before (Lesson 1, step 1) and circle the ones obtainable in late 19th and early 20th century—i.e., before the development of the fingerprint and DNA identification methods.
  4. Introduce vocabulary—anthropometry, which is the basis of the Bertillon's system. Ask students how well they think the Bertillonage/anthropometry system would work in identifying an individual correctly. Encourage discussions—why would it work well? why not? etc. Record discussion points on a blackboard/flip chart.
  5. Tell students that the class will conduct an experiment of how well the Bertillonage/anthropometry system works in correctly identifying a person.
  6. Give each student a copy of the Anthropometric Measurement Sheet (54KB, PDF) and review the sheet on the overhead projector with the students. Ask students how the measurements may be collected in a scientific manner—e.g., uniformly and consistently. Encourage the discussion so that students establish the criteria for each measurement. Note the criteria on the overhead sheet so that students can refer to it while they are taking measurements. [Teacher's Note: If the discussion does not occur easily or naturally, you can wait until the end of the Lesson 2 when the students will compare the 2 different sets of measurements—Lesson 2, Step 6.]
  7. [Teacher's Note: If necessary, review the metric system before this step.] Have students work with a partner to get each other's measurements and ask them to complete his or her own measurements sheet. All measurements should be in centimeters. Remind students to leave the "Unique I.D." blank.
  8. After the measurement activity is completed, ask each student to pick out a paper from a box/bag and explain that the number on the paper is his or her secret unique I.D.
  9. Have students (a) fill out the "Unique I.D." section on his or her own Anthropometric Measurement Sheet and (b) write his or her name on the I.D. paper from the box/bag.
  10. Gather both the measurement sheets and I.D. papers from students and tell them that the experiment will continue at the next class.

Lesson 2

[Teacher's Note: Before the class starts, prepare a master sheet listing the student names with their corresponding I.D. numbers. Also, place all measurement sheets on a classroom wall or a blackboard so that students can have access to them.]

  1. Review the previous lesson's discussions—e.g., measurable uniqueness of a person, criteria for each measurement—by reviewing appropriate student discussion notes and/or the Anthropometric Measurement Sheet transparency, etc. from Lesson 1.
  2. Have students look at the measurement sheets of all classmates and discuss how the measurements may convey a singular individual trait and any other observations that they have made during last class.
  3. Put students in groups of 3 and ask each group to designate a person to be identified. Provide each group with a new blank Anthropometric Measurement Sheet (259KB, PDF) and ask them to fill out the "Unique I.D." section with the designated student's name.
  4. Tell students that their task is to find the I.D. number of the students whose measurements are being taken today without having the selected students remember their I.D. numbers.
  5. If done previously (Lesson 1, step 6 Note), place the measurement criteria on the overhead so that students can refer to them.
  6. Give students about 10–15 minutes to complete the measurements and look for the matching measurements and corresponding I.D. number.
  7. Have each group present their findings. Ask how they matched their person's measurements to those taken in the previous class. Are all the measurements the same? Why or why not? Verify each group's I.D. number to the master list.
  8. Display the notes from previous discussion of whether the Berillonage would be an effective and easy-to-use identification system (Lesson 1, step 3 above). Why, why not? Ask students whether their previous reasoning has changed after this experiment.
  9. Have each student submit a conclusion by answering the following questions:
    • Where there significant differences between the two sets of measurements. If so why? If not, why?
    • Name two factors that could cause error in the measurements taken.
    • Would you consider this the best method of human classification? Support your answer with at least two reasons.


The three questions at the end of the Lesson 2 step 9 can serve as an evaluation tool. Students demonstrate their ability to:

  • compare different sets of data and observe any differences between them.
  • identify the differences as experimental errors.
  • list at least two causes of the errors.
  • describe the effect of experimental errors on the validity of the findings in the scientific process.
  • Redesign an experiment to minimize or eliminate any experimental errors.


  • Read about Juan Vucetich, and the Francisca Rojas case, the first successful use of fingerprint identification in a murder investigation, and make a presentation.
  • Research DNA fingerprinting methods and present at least 2 different DNA analysis methods to the class.


Jeremy Haack, Kenwood High School, Baltimore, Maryland
Dorothy Harris, Quince Orchard High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland
Maria Christina Crassas Makrodimitri, Silver Spring, Maryland
Mary Monte, Eastern Technical High School, Essex, Maryland
Gloria Seelman, NIH Office of Science Education