The Advantage of Spatial Thinking in Science Education

Within our education system the steady, unwavering mantra of “reading, writing, and arithmetic” still holds as true as it did over a 100-years ago.  We continue to spend a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort developing a child’s mathematical and verbal ability.  Educational research shows without a doubt the importance of developing these two areas early in a child’s academic career.  But I would like to make the case that there is a third area of equal importance to mathematical and verbal, and that is spatial ability.       

Spatial thinking is the way we navigate within the world, managing the space around us, and manipulating objects within that space.  It provides us with perspective concerning our surroundings and gives each of us a frame of reference from which we see the world.  I contend that this spatial thinking ability and how we see objects in space is also critical for problem solving in science education.  Whether you are packing your car for the weekend, designing a building, or reconstructing a knee with arthroscopic surgery, an individual’s spatial ability plays a significant role in the completion of each of these tasks.  For children, the development and growth of spatial thinking can be a significant determination of their choice of career later in life.

Several longitudinal research studies involving spatial ability show that those students gravitating toward the STEM fields, biology, physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics have a significantly higher relative score in math and spatial ability, while verbal ability was much lower (math > spatial > verbal).  The studies also show that with an increased level of education a student’s mathematical and spatial ability continues to outpace their verbal ability within the STEM fields.  In regards to non-STEM careers the data trends showed a prominent difference where spatial ability was the lowest of the three (math > verbal > spatial).  Most significant of all for the work I am doing in the AIMS Center, is that for those in educational careers spatial ability was found to be the lowest score for all the careers identified.  This result in education is particularly troubling to me.  As educators, we tend to teach to our strength, our interests, and how we are taught.  If the spatial ability of teachers as a group is habitually low, it is not too far a stretch to believe we are continually presenting and passing this “lack of ability” along to our students in the classroom.

Current spatial research shows that increasing the spatial ability of students has a significant effect in improving their performance in math and science, as well as increased interest and retention in the STEM fields.  This is where I feel there is an opportunity in science and math education.  If we can improve the awareness, interest, and ability of our teachers in spatial learning this could have a direct and immediate effect on our students in the Central Valley.  I feel that research into spatial education could be the key to opening a tremendous number of doors in education.

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