Collaborative Research: Cognitive and Neural Indicators of School-based Improvements in Spatial Problem Solving.

Project: Research project

Project Details


Evidence linking spatial ability and future STEM attainment is exceptionally strong, covering
50 years of research with more than 400,000 participants, and converging across multiple datasets
(Wai et al., 2009). Unfortunately, ?Skill in spatial thinking is presumed throughout the K-12
curriculum but is formally and systematically taught nowhere. (NRC, 2006, p. 131). Thus, a
critical next step toward increasing spatial approaches to STEM education is to provide strong
evidence of their effectiveness and of the mechanisms by which they build STEM thinking abilities.
Using behavioral and MRI assays, we will longitudinally measure effects of a high school STEM
class designed around spatial thinking. The main objectives of this proposal are to (a) provide
empirical evidence that real-world spatial education changes students’ core spatial abilities
and high-level STEM spatial thinking, and (b) test theoretically implicated mechanisms for
how these changes occur at both the cognitive and neural levels. We focus on a geospatial
technology curriculum, aligned with the FY 2014 REAL special emphasis on research on the use
and impact of technology on STEM learning. Based on the IES/NSF common guidelines for education
research, this middle-stage project is a combination of foundational and efficacy research.
Intellectual Merit :
1) This project helps bridge a critical gap between the cognitive neuroscience laboratory
and the high-school classroom. This is not easy, but spatial thinking is a very appropriate
domain for this integration, and a confluence of events make this effort timely and tractable.
More than two decades of research on the brain bases of spatial cognition motivate hypotheses
regarding how spatially-based education might influence neural mechanisms of spatial cognition.
In addition to testing a set of a priori hypotheses motivated by the literature, we will take
a machine-learning approach that enables us to determine which data sources, from a rich structural
and functional dataset, carry the most information. We will also seek to test whether specific
neural changes mediate the effects of spatial education on spatial learning. To our knowledge,
this may be the first research to longitudinally measure how learning in an actual high school
changes the brain. 2) An important direction for integrating spatial theory with educational
practice is to test the effects of a high school class designed around spatial thinking. Our
active engagement with schools that teach the Geospatial Semester course gives us access to
a group of students exposed to a unique form of STEM education that is deliberately designed
around spatial thinking and reasoning. 3) By measuring the effects of spatial education on
both core spatial abilities and high-level STEM spatial thinking, we will be positioned to
test the relative contributions of improvements on individual core spatial abilities (measures
of static vs. dynamic spatial ability) to improvements on more educationally-relevant STEM
reasoning and problem-solving. 4) Prior research indicates that spatial training reduces sex
differences; we will also seek to measure this effect, especially for high-level problem solving.
Broader Impacts :
1) Spatial thinking is critical to STEM achievement but is neglected in most curricula. Mounting
evidence indicates that spatially-based instruction can lead to transformative changes in
students’ thinking, yet very little research has specified how or why this change occurs.
A key next step toward adoption of spatia
Effective start/end date1/1/1512/31/18


  • National Science Foundation (DRL-1420599)


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