Initiative 3:
Improve spatial skills, spatial learning and STEM education

Initiative Coordinators: David Uttal, Susan Goldin-Meadow (Co-PI)

The goal of Initiative 3 is to explore how to improve spatial thinking and STEM achievement. Studies in Initiative 3 take place in the lab, and are being extended to natural settings in Initiative 4 as warranted. One method of improvement is, of course, practice, especially when it is extended, involves multiple exemplars and is distributed rather than massed (Terlecki, Newcombe & Little, 2008; Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139(2), 352-402. DOI). Practice, with guidance, in a variety of skills is the principle used in Sheryl Sorby's (2009) successful workbook for engineering students. In addition, however, SILC believes that considerable purchase on improvement can be gained from use of our spatial tools. Although in principle any of our five spatial tools can be used to improve any STEM-relevant spatial skill, there appear to be affinities between particular spatial tools and particular spatial skills.

Analogy is a tool that naturally lends itself to learning about the spatial configuration (size, shape, arrangement of parts, etc.) of objects through alignment. For example, we have found in Initiative 2 that if young children are shown two instances of a spatial configuration and are encouraged to align them, they are twice as likely to show transfer to another example of the same spatial configuration (as opposed to simply focusing on surface similarities) than children who see the same two examples without explicitly aligning them. In Initiative 3, we are extending this phenomenon in a variety of ways––for example, we ask whether alignment can be used to teach children how to assess the size of objects using a ruler; whether alignment can be used to teach children about the importance of a brace structure in creating a stable object, and whether alignment can be used to teach adults how to understand discipline-specific configurations (e.g., fault classes in geoscience). In future work, we will add additional tools to our investigations. For example, we will explore whether gesture and sketching can be combined with alignment to facilitate learning about configurations. As another example, we will explore whether language (in particular, words that code the arrangement of parts, e.g., perpendicular, parallel) can be used to facilitate learning about geometric configurations.

Gesture is a tool that naturally lends itself to learning about spatial transformations of objects. For example, asking children to display with their hands how two pieces could be rotated so that they form a particular shape improves their performance on a mental spatial transformation task significantly more than asking them to point at the two pieces. We are extending this work to further develop our action-to-abstraction theme mentioned earlier. For example, we ask whether directly acting on the pieces facilitates learning how to mentally transform objects. If not, it may be necessary to introduce a tool that is grounded in action but is not itself a direct action on the world (i.e., gesture) in order to encourage learners to think more abstractly and to enable them to solve problems for which it is not possible to physically manipulate objects. These same questions will be addressed in STEM-related disciplines. For example, in organic chemistry, understanding whether one molecule can be superimposed on another molecule depends on being able to visualize and rotate these molecules in space. We are exploring whether actually performing the action (i.e., rotating models of the molecules) or representing the action in gesture (i.e., producing a gesture that mirrors the rotation) are equally effective in bringing about learning. Importantly, the answer to this question may depend on the prior knowledge of the learner––actually rotating the molecules may work best at the early stages of learning, whereas gesturing may work better once the learner has achieved a certain degree of proficiency with respect to the problem. We can explore whether gesture can be used to facilitate understanding other types of spatial transformations (e.g., cross-sectioning) and whether other tools can be used to facilitate spatial transformations (e.g., sketching, a tool that is frequently used in chemistry as well as in other STEM disciplines).

Language and maps are tools that lend themselves to learning about the spatial location of objects. One of the defining characteristics of human spatial cognition is the frequent and fluent use of spatial symbols. Symbolic representations, including language and maps, not only allow us to retain more spatial information than we otherwise could; they also transform how we think about space, by making us aware of new perspectives, focusing our attention, and providing knowledge structures that guide the way we experience the world. As an example from language, we are finding in Initiative 2 that learning a term like middle may facilitate learning about midpoints, and learning a system of spatial terms (e.g., teaching children the set of terms top-middle-bottom) can facilitate understanding a spatial structure. In Initiative 3, we apply these ideas to important STEM issues such as measurement. As an example from maps, we are exploring whether providing children with a map of a space before they walk through it improves their ability to talk about and represent the space. We also explore how gesture and sketching can be used, along with maps, to promote an understanding of the relations among spatial locations. Finally, we are exploring how spatial locations on a diagram can be used to promote understanding.

Sketching can represent spatial location or spatial configuration, and, through the addition of notations such as arrows or movement lines, can suggest transformations as well. Because sketches are ad hoc constructions by users communicating "on the fly", they are less specifically paired with any kind of spatial information than our other tools.

Relevant Publications from SILC Members

  • ♦ Ehrlich, S.B., Tran, K., Levine, S.C. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009, April). Gesture training leads to improvement in children's mental rotation skill. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado.
  • ♦ Genter, D., Levine, S.C. & Dhillon, S. (2009, July). Using structural alignment to facilitate learning. Presented at Analogy 09, Sophia, Bulgaria.
  • ♦ Levine, S.C. (2009, September). Action and Cognition: The role of gesture in symbolic spatial reasoning. Presented at International Conference on Spatial Cognition, Rome.
  • ♦ Levine, S.C. (2009, May). Improving children's understanding of units of measure: A training study. Paper presented at Spatial Training Conference, Northwestern University.
  • ♦ Levine, S.C., Goldin-Meadow, S., Ehrlich, S. & Tran, Kimloan (2008, June). Can gesture improve children's mental rotation?: A training study. Presented at Conference on Research and Training in Spatial Intelligence, Evanston, Illinois.
  • ♦ Levine, S.C., Kwon, M., Huttenlocher, J., Ratliff, K. & Dietz, K. (2009, August). Children's understanding of ruler measurement: A training study. Presented at Cogntiive Science Society Meeting, Amsterdam.

Additional References

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