May 18, 2011
The ability to visualize what a bridge will look like once it's built, to forecast how a computer program will integrate data, to imagine how molecules will interact, or to predict how parts of a machine will work together is crucial in a global economy that increasingly relies on sophisticated science and technology.
To better understand and improve such skills, researchers at the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center (SILC) are establishing the burgeoning interdisciplinary science of spatial cognition. Their goal is to transform educational practice so that educators can more effectively teach scientific, technical, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills.
"We need enhanced ways to assess and develop spatial thinking that incorporate, for example, mentally rotating objects, visualizing 2-D cross-sections of 3-D objects, understanding scale relationships and understanding symbolic representations such as maps, diagrams and graphs," says Susan C. Levine, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, SILC co-PI and principal investigator of SILC's University of Chicago research. "This would create a stronger pipeline into the STEM disciplines as well as improve students' non-spatial cognitive capabilities."
Created in 2006, SILC is one of five Science of Learning Centers supported by the National Science Foundation. NSF just renewed its support for SILC with a grant for $18 million over five years. SILC research partners include Temple University, University of Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Pennsylvania.
"This grant will allow us to continue our research aimed at characterizing spatial skills, understanding tools that are important for spatial thinking, finding ways to improve spatial skills and, most importantly, to extend what we learn to instructional and educational settings, including schools and museums," Levine says.
Arete has helped SILC researchers by fostering discussions and collaborations through the University of Chicago Developmental Science Research Network, she added.
Digging deeper; having an impact
One of the issues that SILC researchers are addressing is an old bugaboo: Why do female students underperform male students in math and science? Sian L. Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, and colleagues published a study in 2009 showing that math-anxious female elementary school teachers lower the math achievement of their female students. The more anxious teachers are about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) are to endorse the commonly held stereotype that "boys are good at math and girls are good at reading" — and the lower these girls' math achievement, according to the study.
"We're very excited to be able, thanks to this new grant, to study the process that gives rise to this phenomenon," said Gerardo Ramirez, a co-author of the study and graduate student in psychology at the University of Chicago. "We'll go into schools to see how teachers convey their math anxiety and how students pick up on it."
Another area SILC is researching is why people choke under pressure. Researchers at SILC have shown that adults with the highest ability to concentrate are the most likely to do poorly on standardized tests or in other pressure situations. Recently they took this a step further by determining that girls (but not boys) with the highest ability to concentrate are most likely to choke when dealing with spatial problems.
"We want to find out why this happens and how we can address it," Ramirez says.
"The translational aspects of our work are increasingly important," Levine says. "We aim to have an impact, which is why we work closely with Chicago Public School teachers."
In addition to Levin and Ramirez, Susan Goldin-Meadow and Janellen Huttenlocher, psychology professors at UChicago, are also involved with SILC and have been instrumental to its success. SILC also collaborates with the University of Chicago's Everyday Math Curriculum, which is working on a revision of its curriculum that will incorporate some of SILC's research findings.
During the new funding period, SILC will continue to conduct new studies, including one that will examine the effectiveness of dynamic visualization tools that are available for learning geometry compared to more traditional ways of learning these concepts.