Blog Post by Colleen Epler-Ruths, PTAC Member
I was talking with Lena, a middle school student who was using a computer visualization of earthquake data. She had been using the computer visualization in science class for over a week.
I asked, “So when I open this screen can you tell me what you notice?”
“umm, umm, well…….”.
Lena is a low spatial student. She could not explain to me what she was seeing. And her science grade seemed to reflected her inability to explain scientific phenomenon.
My research is on the impact a student’s spatial skills had on learning from a 3D digital data representation. Can computers help mediate student learning even if they have low spatial skills? Seems that Lena was still having trouble learning geoscience even though the computer had reduced the cognitive load and presented her with a 3D image of quakes within the earth’s crust.
Turns out that spatial skills are a great predictor of student success in STEM courses. Science is a very spatial subject. Just think about the spatial nature of moon-earth-sun in astronomy, bonding in chemistry, DNA molecules in biology, muscle structure in anatomy, projectile motion in physics and plate tectonics in geoscience. The list could go on-and-on. All of these examples are three dimensional phenomenon which require various types of spatial skills to deeply understand.
So what are spatial skills? Spatial skills are a wide range of mental processes that help a person navigate our 3D world. Common tests to measure spatial skills include rotating blocks, perspective taking (mountain from the top versus the side) and paper folding. Research has shown that spatial skills can be taught and improved through training at the university level. The problem is, most students start to loose their interest in science at the middle school level. Could there be ways to improve spatial skills prior to adulthood in hopes of keeping more students interested in science?
The answer is YES! Spatial skills are malleable and some thoughtful interventions at younger ages can have an important impact later down the line. The important links to spatial skills is something we already do in school - Training, Play and Language. Research has found that training with mental rotation puzzles helps students with rearranging algebra problems and helps students with low spatial skills increase their competence. Using structured block play has been shown to increase students abilities to be more accurate and quick at spatial tasks as well as enhance areas of the brain known to support spatial thinking.
But the most important intervention seem to be in language. There is a clear link between spatial skills and language - young children with greater spatial language were able follow guided block structures building. Other studies shown that students are better able to accomplish spatial tasks if the adults gives the directions with more spatial words. So instead of saying “but the block here” say “put the block on the middle shelf, under the top shelf”. The idea is that more spatial language helps the student think about the world in more spatial terms which will allow them to notice more spatial phenomenon.
In my own research, I found that students who answered questions in the curriculum with more spatial words (depth, height, under) had greater gains in understanding of plate tectonics than students who answered questions using nonspatial words (colors or lines). While both answers may have been correct in what the student saw, the spatial answers were more inferential instead of descriptive.
So what about computers? Can they be helpful? Some studies have shown that playing “first person shooter” or Tetris type video games increases spatial skills. However, in the classroom, the use of simulations for scientific phenomenon seems to benefit the more spatial student. My experience is that before you introduce a computer simulation into the classroom for learning, students need to have time to play with the simulation and then they must be guided through the affordances of the simulations using as much spatial language as possible. Otherwise you run the risk of having a student like Lena who cannot give words to the spatial phenomena in front of her.
References: Spatial Intelligence
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