"Collaborative Research: Mechanisms of Visuospatial Thinking in STEM”

Project: Research project

Project Details


Using chemistry as a case study, we propose to discover the relative contribution of three mechanisms for visuospatial representation and transformation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM): domain-specific chunking, domain-general compression skills, and raw visuospatial capacity. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved in spatial thinking will lead directly to better pedagogy and curricular design for teaching spatial thinking in STEM classrooms. This project focuses on spatial thinking because it is a critical component of cognition in the STEM domains. This centrality of spatial thinking in STEM practice has made it an important focus of research on STEM learning in K-16 settings and spurred efforts to improve STEM success in students by training spatial abilities. Unfortunately, to date, none of these efforts have yielded lasting results. We argue that these spatial training programs have been largely ineffective because they are based on an impoverished model of the cognitive capacities and processes underlying spatial thinking, both generally and in discipline-based education research. The current focus on spatial training programs has concentrated mainly on assessing and improving the types of spatial thinking processes measured by traditional measures of spatial ability, with little attention to how spatial information is actually processed by the STEM learner. Spatial thinking in STEM requires students to encode and transform complex spatial information depicted in disciplinary representations despite known capacity limits of spatial working memory. Understanding these limits and how spatial information is encoded and transformed differently by STEM novices and experts presents new avenues to addressing the challenges students face navigating STEM curricula.

Intellectual Merit
Spatial thinking is critical for learning and problem solving in STEM disciplines. Studies have shown that spatial ability is important for spatial thinking in the sciences, but the underlying cognitive processes that are involved in spatial thinking in science remain poorly understood. In particular, little is known about how visual memory capacity constrains spatial thinking in the sciences in tandem with spatial ability. With a series of experimental studies, we will identify how disciplinary strategies allow experts to reduce the complexity of spatial information in a chemistry representation to improve their performance and whether these strategies generalize to non-disciplinary representations. We will also identify how chemistry novices apply these same strategies and the relationship between strategy use and spatial ability. Finally, we will examine whether raw visuospatial capacity differs among these groups with stimuli that benefit minimally from domain-specific and domain-general strategies.

Broader Impacts
Our work will address long-standing deficit models about who can and cannot succeed in science by identifying how specific strategies (1) moderate the relationship between spatial ability and spatial thinking in chemistry and (2) allow experts to exceed the limits of visual working memory capacity. Understanding the nature of expert thinking in chemistry can reveal which types of educational interventions are most likely to be effective. Graduate students and a postdoctoral scholar will be trained in the context of the research and our work will broadly inform the design of textbook diagrams, assessment items, and instructional materials. In addition, our findings will yield a Training Sp
Effective start/end date4/1/173/31/21


  • National Science Foundation (DRL-1661264-002)


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.