David Uttal Tests Spatial Skills Training for STEM Achievement

David Uttal Tests Spatial Skills Training for STEM Achievement

David Uttal

Can spatial training improve outcomes in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

Spatial skills are key to success in STEM fields, and research by SESP professor David Uttal has shown that spatial skills can be taught. Now his new study will test whether spatial training actually leads to STEM achievement in school and beyond — an outcome that is important for the future of the U.S.

Uttal and his collaborators Sheryl Sorby of Ohio State University and Martha Carr of the University of Georgia. received a major grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to investigate whether spatial training improves student outcomes in STEM. These impacts include being motivated in STEM fields, taking STEM courses, performing well in STEM and even entering a STEM career.

“Nobody has done a large-scale systematic study of whether improving spatial skills has these positive outcomes,” Uttal says.

STEM skills are seen as critical to progress in the 21st century, as a shortage of STEM workers is widely predicted. In fact, a 2010 White House report called "Prepare and Inspire" emphasized the value of ideas and skills in STEM for the success of the United States as a nation, pointing out that U.S. students lag behind students in other nations in STEM interest and proficiency.

In Uttal's new study, the researchers are testing the efficacy of a systematic intervention that increases spatial skills. They are using curricular materials, designed to supplement the ongoing curriculum, that have been shown to be effective in improving 3-D spatial skills. Nine modules include both multimedia software and a series of workbooks that focus on areas such as 3-D visualization and drawing from different perspectives.

“We will test the hypothesis that giving this training will lead to better STEM outcomes,” Uttal explains. The study will involve seventh graders in 50 middle school classrooms in Colorado, examining the impact of the spatial skills training on their mathematics achievement. Later the study will follow up with the students in high school and college.

The research will take place in school districts with a population mix representative of the overall demographics of the United States. "Enhancing Middle School Mathematics Achievement through Spatial Skills Instruction” will assess gains on spatial tasks, gains on mathematics achievement tests, scores on standardized tests, course grades and course-taking patterns.

“If this works, the next step would be scale-up at the full state or even national level,” Uttal predicts.

Uttal’s study is a randomized controlled trial, the most rigorous type of research that can be done for education. In this type of study participants are assigned to treatment conditions at random, and then the group receiving experimental treatment is compared with a control group that does not receive the treatment.

In addition to the need for improving STEM education, gender equity is another reason the study is important to tackle, according to Uttal. “Mid to late middle school is a critical time for girls since around eighth grade many girls move away from taking courses that would prepare them for STEM fields,” he says.

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) awarded Uttal a grant of $431,366 for his multi-year research project, as part of a larger collaborative project involving Ohio State and the University of Georgia. The total grant amount is $3.5 million.

IES is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. To improve educational outcomes for all students, IES seeks to provide rigorous and relevant evidence for education practice and policy and to share this information broadly. As critical preparation for the project, Uttal credits an IES-sponsored summer workshop organized by SESP professor Larry Hedges. The workshop advanced experimental and statistical techniques.

At Northwestern University, Uttal is a professor of education and of psychology. A Learning Sciences program faculty member, he focuses his research on cognitive development, spatial cognition, symbolic development and mathematical thinking.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 7/14/15