Girl wearing protective googles working with spatial object

Spatial Thinking In STEM

Importance of Spatial Thinking In STEM

The need to include spatial cognition in school STEM curriculum is urgent for at least two reasons. First, we know from cognitive psychological research that children and adolescents demonstrate strong proclivities toward activities that require the use of their spatial abilities (Ness & Farenga, 2007; Ness, Farenga, & Garofalo, 2017; Ness, 2022).

These activities require synthesis in that students actively engage in building structures. This can be easily demonstrated in their constructions using constructive play objects, such as blocks, bricks (e.g., Legos®), or planks (1cm×3cm×15cm wooden pieces). Many children have shown propensities toward activities that involve spatial thinking, and evidence through naturalistic observation suggests they do so deliberately and in a well-planned manner (Ginsburg, Pappas, & Seo, 2001; Ginsburg, Lin, Ness, & Seo, 2003; Ness & Farenga, 2007; Ness, Farenga, & Garofalo, 2017).

Second, 21st-century professions will undoubtedly depend on students’ abilities to physically and mentally manipulate objects or ideas for carrying out various functions in specific fields (NRC, 2006; Kell & Lubinski, 2013). Spatial thinking can foster intellectual skills that are powerful and motivating for students and it has been posited to be an important skill for current and future professions.

The importance of the development of spatial thinking relative to the STEM-related disciplines has been overlooked until only recently, when the Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially published its general findings for K–12 education (NRC, 2006), “The Incorporation of Geographic Information Science across the K–12 Curriculum.”

Teacher education curricula have not included the study of spatial and geometric thinking—an area that is critical for developing students’ skill sets required in STEM related subject matter. So, given the need for K–12 curricula to accommodate the ever-changing dynamic in the 21st-century workforce, and the fact that students will depend on this knowledge for success, spatial skills must be addressed.

Spatial Thinking Skills

While research is replete with evidence of spatial thinking skills emerging in the early years, these skills are left untapped in elementary school, let alone middle school or high school (Clements, 2004; NRC, 2007; Ness & Farenga, 2007; Uttal & Cohen, 2012). Moreover, young children’s spatial skills are often automatic and spontaneous; for this reason, the curriculum needs to present spatial skills in a more deliberate manner for younger children and gradually operationalize spatial concepts for older children and adolescents.

Spatial thinking skill sets include, but are not limited to, conceptualizing space, using tools of representation, reasoning and proving, problem finding, problem solving, visualizing relationships, analyzing static and dynamic systems of objects, observing how objects behave in their environment, recognizing the relationship between two- and three-dimensional constructs, and appreciating the differences between Euclidean space and other geometric models.

The act of making emergent concepts more conscious and deliberate for students is a time-honored notion in the cognitive psychology or education literature. Vygotsky (1933/2012) distinguished between what he calls spontaneous concepts and scientific concepts and emphasized the need to link them in order to recognize the interrelationships between and among concepts of a specific scientific (higher order) domain. Thus, connecting spontaneous spatial concepts with formal ones will bring about deeper conceptual meanings that can be applied to a more diverse set of circumstances in school and in the everyday world.

Assessing Spatial Ability

Research has identified a large, unnoticed student population that possesses high ability in spatial thinking skills in numerous disciplines in mathematics and the natural sciences, arts and humanities, and professional fields from medicine to architecture and engineering (Kell & Lubinski, 2013; Uttal & Cohen, 2012). Unfortunately, these students are frequently unnoticed because they may not necessarily be accomplished in quantitative or verbal ability—the two areas that society overwhelmingly emphasizes in determining intellectual competence (Gohm, Humphreys, & Yao, 1998; Humphreys & Lubinski, 1996; Lubinski, 2003).

Kell, Lubinski, Benbow, and Steiger (2013) found that students with high ability in spatial skills tend to prefer STEM disciplines as academic interests rather than those in the social sciences and arts and humanities. Moreover, talent searches that limit acceptance to only those students who excel in verbal ability and mathematical ability (that does not include spatial skills) exclude a large pool of students categorized within the top one percent of individuals who stand out in terms of spatial ability (Kell, et al., 2013). According to the National Science Board (2010), this underserved population possesses strong talent and potential in advances in STEM disciplines; yet, most educational establishments overlook students with high ability in spatial thinking.

Spatial thinking has become an increasingly important ability for our contemporary information-based economy, particularly in recently and newly developed fields with advanced technologies. For example, spatial thinking is a key component in engineering and other fields that employ geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping skills (Davis & Hyun, 2005; Liben & Downs, 1989).

Spatial ability is also intrinsically important for students to learn because it engenders critical thinking skills and affords participation in numerous science- and engineering-related activities that involve flexible and adaptable representations of a variety of phenomena. In support of spatial thinking as a prerequisite for thinking critically, Goodchild and Janelle (2010) argue that societies need to consider spatial patterns in order to identify optimal allocations of resources for planning and commerce. On a more basic level, spatial thinking is important for the ability to think critically for purposes of navigation.

According to the National Research Council of the National Academies (NRC), spatial skills are essential in almost all scientific occupations and endeavors. The NRC reported that spatial thinking is “integral to the everyday work of scientists and engineers, and it has underpinned many scientific and technical breakthroughs” (2006, p. 230).

For example, spatial thinking skill is intrinsically connected with the natural and physical sciences. Deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), the organizing principle of life, is made up of a simple sugar, four nitrogenous bases, and a phosphate group. DNA is held together by the spatial relations of basic chemical bonding. These arrangements are the only possible combinations that allow for different chemical rings that make up the bases to fit with each other. While the equidistant spacing of the nitrogenous bases (2 nm) and its double helical twist (3.4 nm) shows the spatial organization that is a defining characteristic for life, the road to discovering this famous model required the collective spatial intelligences of Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick—three of the most famous biochemists in history.

The model of DNA is a spatial representation of information. All genetic information of life is found in this molecule, thus making all life spatially dependent. Spatial intelligence allowed humans to discover the structure of DNA, but it was spatial organization that allowed for life. Therefore, spatial representation in nature is primal in the same manner that spatial thinking is an innate intellectual ability.

Although the National Science Board (2010) views the population of students who excel in spatial skills as a strong human capital resource, and the NRC has recognized spatial thinking as a critical learning goal, the curriculum has generally overlooked its importance. In an environment of performance-based assessment, this lack of attention has led to a gap in children’s critical thinking ability in middle school and high school (Uttal, et al., 2013).

Spatial Development

Evidence for spatial thinking skills in the STEM curriculum is supported by research that has found a strong presence of emergent spatial skills in early childhood. Piaget and Inhelder (1956) suggested that very young children think topologically; they perceive things based on a more dynamic and less Euclidean conception of the visual world. More recent research has suggested that infants’ and toddlers’ ideas about varying quantities and those of spatial relationships are enmeshed. Very young children may lack the ability to discriminate between distinct quantities of objects in contrast to the recognition of objects and the space separating those objects (Mix, Huttenlocher, & Levine, 2002).

However, findings from post-Piagetian studies demonstrated that preschool children are successful in categorizing objects based on geometric shape and measurement (Miller & Baillargeon, 1990; Ness & Farenga, 2007). This means that young children demonstrate their ability to measure, predict whether a block or brick structure can withstand forces when applied to it, and characterize rectangular shapes separately from round or spherical ones.

Spatial skills have also played an important role in the advancement of levels in van Hiele’s (1986) model of geometric development. For van Hiele, geometric figures bear properties, and as children develop, they tend to increase their potential to detect properties and spatial relations of figures. Moreover, van Hiele (1999) has encouraged the implementation of object-oriented prompts, such as puzzle pieces, to facilitate the advancement of children’s levels of geometric development.

Cognitive studies using naturalistic observation methodology suggest that there are many students who, if given the opportunity, can demonstrate their spatial proclivities in STEM, particularly in an area of the classroom containing blocks, bricks (e.g., Legos®), or planks (Ginsburg, et al., 1999; Ginsburg, Pappas, & Seo, 2001). Free time is one of the most favorable periods of the school day for teachers to identify important spatial thinking and problem solving abilities (Copley, 1999; Ferrara, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, Golinkoff, & Lam, 2011).

This is supported by Gersmehl and Gersmehl (2007), who suggest using a neurological foundation for preparing curriculum in spatial thinking and argue that neural connections and structures for spatial reasoning are functional as early as the preschool years. They also contend that appropriate adult intervention can improve spatial representations and that inclusion of spatial skills at the elementary level is essential for future endeavors that necessitate high levels of spatial ability.

Gersmehl and Gersmehl (2007) point to the influence of spatial memory as a means for developing spatial thinking. Spatial memory is prompted as a result of both spatially related language (Ferrara, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, Golinkoff, and Lam, 2011) and geometric factors of the environment in which a spatial event occurs (Harris, Hirsh-Pasek, & Newcombe, 2013).

Because direction and location are relative and the human brain lacks neural mechanisms that possess a so-called absolute version of these concepts (Cheng, Huttenlocher, and Newcombe, 2013; McNamara, 2003; Rump & McNamara, 2013), Committeri and colleagues (2004) and Hartley, Trinkler, and Burgess (2004) have shown that the human brain possesses three specific and interconnected mechanisms that encode relative locations. These mechanisms are geometric characteristics, body orientation of the subject in question, and the construct involving the ability to differentiate between front and back.

These mechanisms show that relative location as it relates to spatial thinking is evident in the early years and can be introduced in elementary school and continue in higher grade levels. Thus, it is becoming increasingly crucial for educators to introduce methods of identifying students’ spatial abilities and potential propensities while observing them build and connect with constructive play objects.