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Long considered a primary factor of intelligence, spatial ability has been shown to correlate strongly with success in engineering education, yet is rarely included as a learning outcome in engineering programmes. A clearer understanding of how and why spatial ability impacts on performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects would allow educators to determine if spatial skills development merits greater priority in STEM curricula. The aim of this study is to help inform that debate by shedding new light on the role of spatial thinking in STEM learning and allow teaching practice and curriculum design to be informed by evidence based research. A cross cutting theme in STEM education – problem solving – is examined with respect to its relationship with spatial ability. Several research questions were addressed that related to the role and relevance of spatial ability to first year engineering education and, more specifically, the manner in which spatial ability is manifest in the representation and solution of word story problems in mathematics. Working with samples of engineering students in Ireland and the United States, data were collected in the form of responses to spatial ability tests and problem solving exercises in the areas of mathematics and electric circuits. Following a pilot study to select and refine a set of mathematical story problems a mixed methods design was followed in which data were first analysed using quantitative methods to highlight phenomena that were then explored using an interpretive approach. With regard to engineering education in general, it was found that spatial ability cannot be assumed to improve as students progress through an engineering programme and that spatial ability is highly relevant to assessments that require reasoning about concepts, novel scenarios and problems but can remain hidden in overall course grades possibly due to an emphasis on assessing rote learning. With regard to problem solving, spatial ability was found to have a significant relationship with the problem representation step but not with the solution step. Those with high levels of spatial ability were more able to apply linguistic and schematic knowledge to the problem representation phase which led to higher success rates in translating word statements to mathematical form.
Duffy, G. (2017) Spatial Thinking in the Engineering Curriculum: an Investigation of the Relationship Between Problem Solving and Spatial Skills Among Engineering Students. Doctoral thesis, DIT, 2017.