Lisa Martin-Hansen, California State University Long Beach – Transforming Spatial Thinking

Is it nature or nurture for those who want a STEM career?

Lisa Martin-Hansen, professor of science education at California State University, Long Beach, determines maybe you don’t need to be born with it.

Dr. Lisa Martin-Hansen (California State University, Long Beach) and her spatial thinking research team, Dr. Youngjin Song (CSULB), Dr. Susan Gomez Zwiep of BSCS, and Hye Sun You of Michigan State, have gathered five years of data regarding students’ spatial thinking abilities in the general education course titled Introduction to Scientific and Spatial Reasoning.

Transforming Spatial Thinking


It is known that the ability to think spatially is necessary in order to be successful in STEM majors in college and ultimately in STEM careers. However, it was long thought that spatial ability was more of nature — “you are born with it” — type of characteristic. More recently, researchers are finding that nurture, or experience plays more of a role in developing this ability than previously imagined.

Our research confirmed what others had found – that females on average scored lower when pre-tested in spatial reasoning compared to their male peers. Additionally, we had occasionally heard women our classes make comments about struggling with visualization of three-dimensional figures. Our team sought to change the way our students thought — in essence, fostering neural plasticity.

We drew upon the research of Sheryl Sorby and Beverly Baartmans, engineers who developed conceptual exercises to grow their future engineers’ abilities to think spatially. We’ve tapped their strategies, along with some of our own challenges, drawings and games, in order to more fully develop spatially savvy STEM majors at our Hispanic-serving institution.

Looking at five years of pre and post-test data from a standardized measure, we find that our students’ spatial abilities grew at a statistically significant level. In fact, on average, the women at the end of our course perform at the same level as men who don’t take our course. In essence, they have become equal in their abilities to think spatially.

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