Initiative 1:
Characterize spatial skills relevant to STEM and chart their development

Initiative Coordinators: Thomas F. Shipley, Russell Epstein, Nora Newcombe (PI)

Spatial information concerns the representation of relations between locations, configurations, shapes, objects, and paths; that is, representations in which the key elements and relations are spatial in nature. Spatial learning includes various cognitive processes operating over representations of spatial information. For example, we consider analogical reasoning about two molecular structures to constitute a form of spatial thinking because the representations of the structures are spatial, even though analogical reasoning is not restricted to spatial information. As another example, we consider sketching a geological formation from memory to constitute a form of spatial thinking even though memory and motor processes are also involved. Spatial learning and thinking are not isolated from other cognitive processes but rather are integrated with these other processes to accomplish complex cognitive tasks.

The focus of Initiative 1 is on representations and transformations of spatial information, which we collectively term spatial skills. (They have also been called spatial abilities, but the term "ability" tends to connote a more fixed entity than the evidence justifies.) SILC’s theoretical framework, derived from cognitive, linguistic and neuroscientific data, guides our formulation of an organizing schema for thinking about these skills (Chatterjee, 2008). As explained briefly above, we posit four broad categories of spatial skills, defined as follows:

  1. Intrinsic-Static. Coding the spatial features of objects, including their size and the arrangement of their parts––i.e., their configuration (e.g., to identify objects as members of categories)
  2. Intrinsic-Dynamic. Transforming the spatial codings of objects, including rotation, cross-sectioning, folding, plastic deformations (e.g., to imagine some future state of affairs)
  3. Extrinsic-Static. Coding the spatial location of objects relative to other objects or to a reference frame (e.g., to represent configurations of objects that constitute the environment and to combine continuous and categorical information)
  4. Extrinsic-Dynamic. Transforming the inter-relations of objects as one or more of them moves, including the viewer (e.g., to maintain a stable representation of the world during navigation and to enable perspective taking).

Essential aspects of characterizing these spatial skills include understanding how they develop, how they vary across individuals and how they can be taught. In addition, the relations among these various skills must be defined. Complex STEM-related problems often involve multiple kinds of spatial skill (as well as other cognitive skills).

SILC is tackling these issues of characterization in depth in two different arenas: teaching young children (whose structure of intellect needs to be delineated to define the best means for early education) and understanding the performance of students and experts in geoscience (a field whose spatial demands allow us to think in depth about the organizing schema outlined above with reference to concrete STEM practice). This intensive research on characterizing early spatial skills and spatial skills important in geoscience will provide the framework for developing an Early Spatial Assessment and a Geosciences Skills Assessment by the end of a 10-year Center effort. SILC will be beginning to explore the spatial demands of other STEM disciplines and expanding this effort as the Center matures.

Researchers in STEM education who are interested in using methods developed by SILC or partnering in developing education interventions should select the appropriate contact person from the following STEM disciplines:

We have found that, although there is a substantial literature on spatial skills and their development (Liben, 2006;  Newcombe & Huttenlocher, 2000,  2006;  Newcombe, Uttal & Sauter, in press;  Vasilyeva & Lourenco,  in press), there are challenges in using this body of work to study the spatial skills that are used in STEM disciplines such as the geosciences. For example, although there is prior work on coding spatial location using models in which qualitative and quantitative information are combined, this research has typically relied on simple geometric spaces, such as locating dots in circles. A general model useful for understanding learning in the geosciences would need to be applicable to much more complex real-world stimuli. As another example, prior work on locating objects in relation to external frames of reference has often neglected the framework provided by slope gradients, and yet the slope of the ground is a key dimension for geoscientists. These examples illustrate how consideration of translational issues affect thinking about theoretical matters.

Relevant Publications from SILC Members

Presentations from SILC

  • ♦ Boyer, T.W. & Levine, S.C. (2009, April). Child proportional scaling: Are all equivalent proportions equally equal? Poster presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado.
  • ♦ Lourenco, S.F. & Levine, S.C. (2009, April). Location Representation Following Early Unilateral Brain injury: Evidence of Distinct Deficits and Degrees of Plasticity. Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Denver, Colorado.
  • ♦ Ratliff, K.R., Levine, S.C. & Saunders, J. (November, 2009). Explaning the sex difference in children's mental rotaiton performance. Abstract presented at the 50th annual Psychonomic Society Meeting, Boston, Massachusetts.

Additional References

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