Spatial skills are building blocks to STEM success

Posted: February 29, 2016

Sheryl Sorby
Sheryl Sorby
Academics always came easy to Engineering Education Professor Sheryl Sorby. No matter the subject—math, science, foreign language, English—she excelled in them all.

So when she decided to study civil engineering in college, she had no doubt she’d succeed.

After earning straight As fall quarter, Sorby was taken aback when, for the first time in her life, she struggled to understand the material in engineering graphics, an introductory course.

“I had no idea how to solve the problems or what the teacher was talking about,” she explained. “What made it worse for me is that all my friends said it was the easiest class that they had all year. And I couldn’t do it. I nearly left engineering because of that.”

But Sorby persevered, earning first a bachelor’s in civil engineering, followed by a PhD in mechanical engineering.

As a faculty member, she began studying what exactly had happened to her during that engineering graphics course. The problem wasn’t that she couldn’t do the engineering, Sorby discovered, but that she had poor spatial skills.

She’s far from alone. Over the past 22 years, Sorby’s research has shown that women are three times more likely to have problems with their 3-D spatial skills versus men.

Spatial visualization skills, or the ability to see and mentally manipulate three-dimensional objects, are key in engineering.

No one really knows why women’s 3-D spatial skills lag significantly behind men’s, Sorby explained, but the good news is that those skills can be learned.

More than 20 years ago, she received National Science Foundation funding to develop a visualization training course for first-year engineering students. The 15 to 20 hours of training incorporates multimedia software and workbook exercises, such as building objects out of cubes and sketching them from various perspectives.

Now implemented at nearly 20 universities nationwide, including The Ohio State University, Sorby’s course has been shown to drastically improve students’ spatial skills and performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, especially for women.

“We thought this training would help students do better in their intro engineering courses, because it’s a lot of graphics,” Sorby said. “But we also found that they were doing better in a variety of courses, including calculus, physics, pre-calculus and, surprisingly, computer science.”

Even better, the rate of women graduating with an engineering degree increased from 47% of women with poor spatial skills to 77% of women who received visualization training.

“In terms of the retention and graduation rates, spatial ability is something that’s really important for females," explained Sorby. "It doesn’t seem to impact the males as much but for the females, this is where we see huge differences.”

Studying the brain for answers

With the support of a new three-year, $1.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Sorby and other researchers will conduct a large-scale study of the role spatial visualization plays in the ability of undergraduate engineering students to solve engineering problems with either one or multiple solutions.

Researchers from The Ohio State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will use electroencephalograms to examine the brain activity of 100 male and 100 female undergraduate students identified as having high or low spatial visualization skills. These students will take visualization tests and attempt to solve a series of engineering-related questions with either singular or open-ended solutions.

By comparing the neural activity of high- and low-visualizing students, the study should illustrate which regions of the brain manifest any correlations between spatial and problem-solving abilities.

Results from the study could consequently inform the design of curricula that hone the problem-solving skills essential for prospective engineers and others entering the STEM fields, said Lance Pérez, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is co-leading the study with Sorby.

The study will also analyze any gender differences in neural activity during the tests, which could offer physiological insights into the question of why males generally score higher on measures of spatial visualization. Understanding the mechanisms that produce this gap could also enhance and encourage the adoption of efforts to close it, the researchers said.

Building strong spatial skills

Sorby’s biggest hope is that one day there will no longer be a need for her spatial skills training course.

Funded by a four-year, $3.5 million grant from the Department of Education, Sorby and her team are implementing spatial skills training in seventh grade classrooms across the nation to determine if it could positively impact students’ motivation to pursue STEM careers.

The training will be provided to students in partnering schools in Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and other states. Researchers will then track students’ performance in their math and science courses as well as on standardized tests in grades six through nine. A pilot study has already shown positive results in terms of improved math achievement for participants.

The early intervention could also pay other dividends. Sorby’s team is currently analyzing data which suggests that spatial skills training could be very important for girls with lower ACT scores.

“I think what’s going on is they have lower ACT scores not because they have lower math ability, but because they have poor spatial skills,” she said. “So then you show them this little bit of training and it unlocks their math potential. Maybe the spatial skills were holding them back in terms of what they were able to achieve in mathematics.”

When it comes to unlocking potential, adults can also help kids hone their spatial ability long before they ever step foot in the classroom. Some of the activities Sorby recommends include playing with 3-D video games, 3-D puzzles and construction toys like Legos or GoldieBlox; sketching objects from different perspectives; reading maps and building furniture or other items that come in pieces.

“A lot of people think spatial ability is a fixed quantity and, for example, you either know how to read a map or you don’t, and if you don’t you can learn it,” Sorby explained. “But from my own experience as a learner and as a teacher, spatial skills definitely can be learned.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,

Categories: FacultyResearch