Spatial-Visualization Courses Improve Skills

September 28, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

In one of their first studies, engineering professor Sheryl Sorby and mathematics educator Beverly Baartmans administered the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) along with a background questionnaire to first-year Michigan Technological University engineering students. The results showed that previous experience in design-related courses such as drafting, mechanical drawing, and art as well as childhood play with construction toys such as Legos, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets predicted good performance on the test. Another factor that predicted success was being a man. Women were more than three times as likely as their male peers to fail the test — 39 percent of the women failed compared with 12 percent of the men.

Sorby then selected a random sample of students who failed the PSVT:R to participate in a pilot offering of a spatial-visualization course she and Baartmans had developed with funding from the National Science Foundation. For 10 weeks, these students took a course that included two hours of lecture and a two-hour computer lab each week. At the end of the course, students took the test again. The results were remarkable. Students’ test scores — both women’s and men’s — improved from an average score of 52 percent before taking the class to 82 percent after taking it.

Sorby and her colleagues continue to offer the spatial-visualization course to engineering freshmen who fail the PSVT:R. Students’ test scores consistently increase by 20 to 32 percentage points after taking the course, even after it was condensed into a one-credit class that meets for a total of only 28 hours.

Other universities are now offering the course, and the National Science Foundation has funded the Women in Engineering ProActive Network to make the course available to students at 30 additional universities by 2014. In addition, any individual interested in improving her or his spatial skills on her or his own can purchase a workbook that Sorby and her colleagues created.

I find it empowering to know that something like spatial-visualization skills, which are often considered to be innate, can actually be learned with not too much effort.

Avatar By:   |   September 28, 2011


  1. Avatar Christianne Corbett says:


    Sheryl Sorby agrees with you! Dr. Sorby recommends (and AAUW recommends in Why So Few?) that spatial skills be taught as early as elementary or middle school because kids use spatial skills to interpret graphs and diagrams from that early in their academic careers. There’s no need to wait until college.


  2. Avatar Pauline Barrett, AAUW Seattle says:

    As a child in the 1940-50s I preferred playing with my plastic bricks, farm sets, and electric trains. I wanted to be an architect when I grew up, and was given (by my parents) a drafting board and related supplies (including a triangular scale). I spent my childhood creating “the perfect house” rather than playing “house” with my friends. I really wanted an erector set but my mom envisioned small parts left behind when it was time to put away the set.

    I think it’s great that women’s so-called inability to see spatially has been recognized and steps taken to provide training that definitely improve and enhance this requirement for successful college-level work.

    But why wait until college? Can this intervention be provided earlier? Junior High School seems a good place to start, even if such “play” needs to be part of an after-school event.

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