Spatial Learning and STEM: What are we missing?

[The following is an article I wrote for the February 2018 issue of Children’s Technology Review.]

[The above image on the left is a 1971 cover of Science Magazine, which at the time published a seminal spatial research paper by Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler called Mental rotation of three‐dimensional objects. The screen shot on the right is an homage to Shepard & Metzler’s paper, created in the virtual world Minecraft.]

Educators who want to help children get a leg up in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) have heard improving one’s spatial ability can be a key component to success. Research (see references at end of article) has shown students who have strong spatial skills often outperform their peers in STEM subjects, and have long‐term success in STEM related fields. But what exactly helps a student grow their spatial aptitude? Let’s take a closer look.

Young children who have access to building experiences and construction toys is a good first start. Wooden blocks, Lego, Mega Bloks, K’Nex, Meccano Erector Sets, TinkerToys all are helpful in exposing young children to spatial concepts that might carry into STEM studies and careers. No wires or batteries required.

Playing with apps and video games, flying drones and programming robots can provide additional opportunities to engage in spatial thinking. But it’s worth pointing out some differences in what spatial skills are learned in each medium.

In the world of video games, reading a map and navigating space as a player is a common game mechanic. It’s an element of spatial understanding most players have mastered. Minecraft and Roblox are popular examples. (Ironically, very little research has been done to understand the benefits of using these games from a spatial learning perspective.)

Other less known apps such as Blox 3D World by Appy Monkeys Software and Lightbot by LightBot Inc. also require navigating through and around a 3D space.

Programming robots is another method often used to navigate space. A student is asked to write few lines of code that will move a robot from point A to point B on a map. Two different skills are used to complete this task. First reading a flat two‐dimensional map, and second translating that information in one’s mind to navigate a three‐dimensional space with your robot. Such exercises can flex one’s spatial muscles. But reading maps and navigating space in the real world is just one part of spatial understanding. There are others as well.

A growing body of research demonstrates other spatial exercises could help improve a students spatial abilities further still. These examples look inward instead of outward. For example, the ability to mentally rotate an object in one’s mind has huge benefits to increasing one’s spatial abilities. Folding a two-dimensional object in one’s mind into a three-dimensional object is another.

Changing the perspective of an object, or even visualizing what an object would look like if cut in half, all great exercises that strengthen one’s spatial ability. It’s these latter approaches that are often overlooked in a classroom setting, and are exercises that provide great benefits in STEM‐focused classrooms and careers.

Spatial exercises like these were first seen with Nintendo’s Brain Age games and the Big Brain Academy titles for the Nintendo DS platform, but have rarely been seen since. Occasionally you can find a rather clinical implementation of these spatial exercises that are not designed for kids. However, there are a few hidden gems worth knowing about that explore this other spatial domain.

Relationshapes by VizuVizu is one of my favorite examples. Players young or old position, rotate, scale and match 2D shapes. It’s a great app for practicing 2D mental rotations.

klocki by Rainbow Train is another great 2D mental rotations game.

Cyberchase 3D Builder for PBSkids by Curious Media. Folding paper (like activities found in Nintendo Labo) is an under utilized exercise for building spatial abilities. Folding 2D nets into 3D objects provides a great opportunity to practice mental folding.

Foldify by Pixle. A fun craft like exercise that also helps users see the relationship of drawing on a 2D surface and how that 2D information is translated to a folded 3D object.

Crafty Cut by Touch Press is a rare gem, and a hard to find spatial experience known as mental cutting. Users try cutting a 3D object to a desired 2D shape.

Any student, or adult, who might be challenged by weak spatial abilities can strengthen their skills through practice of these games and activities.

Further reading:

Newcombe, N. (2010). Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking. American Educator, 86m 29-43. Retrieved from http://www.qwww.spatiallearning.org/publications_pdfs/Newcombe_000.pdf

Shepard, R. N., & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental rotation of three‐dimensional objects. Science, 171(3972), 701‐703. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.171.3972.701

Uttal, D. H., & Cohen, C. A. (2012). Spatial Thinking and STEM Education. When, Why, and How? Psychology of Learning and Motivation – Advances in Research and Theory, 57, 147-181. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-394293-7.00004-2

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. DOI: 10.1037/a0028446

Wai, J., Lubinski, D. & Benbow, C. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 817-835. DOI: 10.1037/a0016127

Scott Traylor is a former computer science teacher and the vice president of software design at Wonder Workshop. He’s also the founder of 360KID and a consultant to many children’s interactive businesses and products, none of which are mentioned in this article. Scott can be reached at Scott@360KID.com.

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