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A First-Year Engineering Spatial Skills Workshop: Implementation, Effectiveness, and Gender Differences

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2019 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity


Crystal City, Virginia

Publication Date

April 14, 2019

Start Date

April 14, 2019

End Date

April 22, 2019

Conference Session

Track: Learning Spaces, Pedagogy, and Curriculum - Technical Session 11

Tagged Topics

Diversity and Learning Spaces, Pedagogy & Curriculum Design

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Paper Authors


Maxine Fontaine Stevens Institute of Technology (School of Engineering and Science)

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Maxine Fontaine is a Teaching Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in 2010 from Aalborg University in Aalborg, Denmark. Maxine has a background in the biomechanics of human movement, and she currently teaches several undergraduate courses in engineering mechanics. Her research interests are focused on improving engineering pedagogy and increasing diversity in engineering.

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Alexander John De Rosa Stevens Institute of Technology (School of Engineering and Science)

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Alexander De Rosa is a Teaching Assistant Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. Alex specializes in teaching in the thermal-fluid sciences and has a background in experimental combustion. He gained his PhD in 2015 from The Pennsylvania State University in this area.

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Susan Staffin Metz Stevens Institute of Technology (School of Engineering and Science)

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Susan Metz is Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Senior Research Associate at Stevens Institute of Technology. Metz is a founder of WEPAN, Women in Engineering ProActive Network. She is a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award and a Fellow of the Association for Women in Science.

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Research indicates that the ability to visualize spatially is important to persistence in an engineering program, yet never explicitly taught at the pre-college or college levels. (Wai et al, 2009). Instead, spatial ability is usually developed through various life experiences, such as building with LEGOs, playing video games, playing certain sports, and other similar activities. Spatial visualization is a critical foundational skill that has been correlated to higher-level problem solving ability, and thus higher performance in other core courses like mathematics and chemistry (Sorby, 2009).

There are significant gender differences in spatial skills competence with women and underrepresented minorities displaying lower spatial skills ability. These students will often struggle and eventually drop out of an engineering program, simply because they are not given the opportunity develop these skills. Research indicates that spatial skills are malleable, not innate and can be learned by practicing (Sorby and Wysocki, 2003).

Sorby’s “Developing Spatial Thinking” curriculum has been implemented in over 41 engineering schools with the help of the NSF initiative, ENGAGE Engineering (ENGAGE, 2017). Data collected over the past two decades at Michigan Tech clearly show significant improvement in spatial skill test scores before and after the course, from an average pre-workshop score around 50% to an average post-workshop score around 75%. Sorby’s standard curriculum consists of 10 modules, typically reviewed in 1.5 hour lab sessions over 10 weeks. During a lab session, students work through an instructional software module and complete sketching exercises in a workbook. However, implementation of this spatial skills curriculum as a required course is a challenge at many universities because of the bureaucracy involved in curricular change.

Segil et al. have adapted Sorby’s curriculum into a “workshop” format, which is taken outside of class rather than as a required course (Segil et al, 2015). Over a period of five semesters, they tried various implementations of the spatial skills workshop, and found that the most effective student incentive was incorporating the spatial skills program as 5% of the semester course grade. They also developed hands-on (physical) workshop activities to supplement Sorby’s curriculum of software- and workbook- based modules.

In this study, we present the results of implementing the spatial skills curriculum in a workshop format at our University, beginning in 2016. The program was introduced as a part of our Engineering Graphics course so all 495 first-year engineering students were required to take the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) to assess spatial ability. The success to date is notable based on (voluntary) participation level, differences in pre- and post- workshop test scores, as well as feedback from participating students on the workshop itself through an anonymous survey. Preliminary results reflect a significant difference in spatial ability among women and under-represented minorities, as previous studies have shown. Final test scores of participating students versus students who did not participate in the workshop are used to measure the effectiveness of completing the workshop versus simply completing the Graphics course. We also evaluate the necessity of including spatial skills assessment and training for engineering students at our University.   References: 1. ENGAGE Engineering. Retrieved August 27, 2017, from 2. Segil, J., Myers, B., Sullivan, J. & Reamon, D. (2015). Efficacy of various spatial visualization implementation approaches in a first-year engineering projects course. ASEE Annual Conference. Paper ID # 12187. 3. Sorby, S. (2009). Educational Research in Developing 3-D Spatial Skills for Engineering Students. International Journal of Science Education, 31(3), 459 – 480. 4. Sorby, Sheryl A. and Anne F. Wysocki. Introduction to 3D Spatial Visualization: An Active Approach. New York, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2003. 5. Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817-835.

Fontaine, M., & De Rosa, A. J., & Metz, S. S. (2019, April), A First-Year Engineering Spatial Skills Workshop: Implementation, Effectiveness, and Gender Differences Paper presented at 2019 CoNECD - The Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity , Crystal City, Virginia.

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