On spatial reasoning & the gender gap in STEM

I’m taking a physics course right now that is reminding me, repeatedly, that I have strong spatial reasoning skills compared with many other people.  Now, I’m not writing this to brag – I’m writing it because it has made this physics class much easier for me than many other students, despite having less formal training in physics than many other students, all of whom are science teachers.  I feel included in the community of the class by virtue of my ability to move shapes in my head, and quickly assign scientific meaning to visual structures both in my head and on paper.

When I was growing up as a female child, my mother knew how much a lack of spatial reasoning set her back in science and math.  She asked my grandmother, one of my primary caretakers as a kid and a retired math teacher, to train me to do spatial reasoning and logic.  We practiced different kinds of puzzles, games, and geometry problems that required my developing brain to manipulate shapes and determine how things worked together spatially.  Though it’s impossible to say for sure, I believe this early training had a huge influence on my spatial abilities as an adult.

Fast forward to today, and research is supporting that practicing spatial reasoning tasks can improve spatial reasoning skills – one of the persistent gaps between men and women in STEM training programs.  I first came across this finding at the Women in STEM Knowledge Center, whose Engineering Inclusive Teaching program provides resources to engineering faculty about creating more inclusive STEM classrooms.  One of their webinars focused on a group of undergraduate engineering students at University of Colorado, Boulder that took a 1-credit spatial reasoning course in their first year in the program.  Before taking the class, 88% of men and 68% of women passed a spatial reasoning pre-test.  After the workshop, that gap closed to 99% of men and 96% of women.  Similar results were seen for international students vs. domestic students: before the class, only 61% of international students passed while 85% of domestic students did.  Afterwards, this closed to 92% vs. 99%.

Turns out this is not an isolated finding.  Many peer-reviewed articles have uncovered similar results: that spatial reasoning is an essential skill in engineering that has a persistent gender gap, but that it is highly teachable.  I love this quote from a KQED piece on the topic:

“Spatial skills are an early indicator of later achievement in mathematics, they “strongly predict” who will pursue STEM careers, and they are more predictive of future creativity and innovation than math scores. In fact, a review of 50 years of research shows that spatial skills have a “robust influence” on STEM domains.

However, women generally score lower than men on tests of spatial reasoning — particularly measures of spatial visualization and mental rotation. Some researchers point to evolution as the culprit, while others have tied the discrepancies to hormone levels or brain structure.  As one researcher put it, “Sex differences in spatial ability are well documented, but poorly understood.”

Sheryl Sorby said she’s not interested in arguing about why the gap exists because training and practice can close it.”

As a trans person and a person assigned female at birth, I too am tired of science trying to put meaning onto a difference between groups as a result of hormones, chromosomes, or evolution when results turn out to be changeable.  Let’s do something about this gap rather than trying to justify it!

I brought this finding up to my physics professor, who was putting himself down for putting a very challenging spatial reasoning question on our mid-term exam.  I suggested that with more practice, more students would have been able to succeed.  Unsurprisingly, his response was initially one of disbelief.  His mindset was based in the idea that spatial reasoning skills are fixed – that “art,” “drawing,” and “visualization” are either talents you are born with, or are doomed to never have.

However, just like in athletics, training has shown to improve students’ spatial reasoning abilities overall. Not all students will become star visualizers, in the same way that not all students will become track stars if they start running every day.  However, we can all become more “fit” in our spatial reasoning through concerted effort and practice.

With these findings in mind, I am trying to collect good websites that have spatial reasoning practice for my students.  At times, I plan to make it required – as Dr. Cheryan pointed out, this is the only way to guarantee equitable impact – but I also plan to have it as an option for kids who are finished with their work to do something that is productive, challenging, and fun.  Have one to add?  Leave it in the comments!

  • 3D logic cube. Match the same-color squares to complete each level.
  • Interlocked – one of my personal favorites.  Rotate pieces, which are partially visible, to unlock the connections between them.  Lots of spatial reasoning here!
  • Tetrical – a 3D tetris game.  Challenging but fun! An easier, untimed version: Puzz3D
  • Blueprint – rotate a blueprint until you find the correct picture.
  • Shape fold – an easy tangrams-like game that involves rotating 2D shapes
  • Shape inlay – ultimate tangrams.  I could play this for hours
  • Fit it quick – mini-tetris
  • Magnets – a game I have already played for hours, and single-handedly helped me decide I shouldn’t be in research, because I found it too tempting by comparison. (Be forewarned, this is more an indication of how much I disliked research than how good the game is… and it’s impossible to get past level 5, as far as I can tell 🙂 )
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