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Applied Spatial Visualization for Engineers

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Engineering Design Graphics Division Technical Session 3: Spatial Visualization

Tagged Division

Engineering Design Graphics

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Paper Authors


Agata K. Dean Colorado School of Mines

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Agata Dean graduated from Colorado School of Mines with a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 2004, and a Masters in Math in 2006. She taught in the Mathematics department at Mines for 10 years and now teaches spatial skills through the Center for Academic Services and Advising. She also serves as the faculty advisor for the largest collegiate section of the Society of Women Engineers at Mines.

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Spatial visualization is widely recognized as an important skill for engineering students, often serving as an indicator to a student’s engineering success. Nationally, about 15-20% of freshmen enrolled in engineering programs struggle with spatial skills, as tested by the student’s performance on the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R). Research has shown that spatial skills can be learned with practice. To this end, various interventions aimed at improving struggling students’ spatial skills have been done at institutions across the country, with the primary instruction tool being the “Developing Spatial Thinking” workbook developed by Dr. Sheryl Sorby. This paper describes efforts to better reach and support the target population with a novel curriculum developed around the Sorby workbook designed to enrich student learning at one engineering university.

The target population for the “Applied Spatial Visualization for Engineers” course described in this paper is first year students who are struggling with spatial skills. Prior to the Fall 2016 semester, incoming first year students were encouraged to take the PSVT:R pretest to determine their spatial ability. More than 90% of first year students (912 students) took the pretest, and those who scored below proficiency were encouraged to register for the course. Due to efforts that will be described in this paper, Fall 2016 enrollment is comprised of 64% freshmen, and 92% are identified as struggling with spatial skills. Efforts will continue to enroll more students in the target population, but the demographic in the course in Fall 2016 is an improvement over previous years and an encouraging first step.

In addition to efforts to recruit the target population for enrollment, changes were made in the pedagogy of the course. In the past, spatial skill development in the course was based solely on the Sorby workbook. While this exposure to spatial thinking did boost student scores from pretest to posttest by an average of 26%, best instructional practices suggest that more can be done to foster students’ spatial skill development. To this end, a curriculum has been developed to supplement the workbook instruction. In-class group activities have been designed for each of ten instructional units, all with the purpose of encouraging students to make connections through hands-on experience. Some of the more popular group activities include cutting and folding flat patterns to develop a strategy for recognizing potential correct flat patterns; modeling geometric solids with play-doh and cutting them with floss to determine possible cross sections; and, learning to draw orthographic sketches by drawing directly on a plexi-glass Ortho-Box that unfolds into proper orthographic view placement. Additionally, a research project was introduced to encourage students to take ownership of their spatial skill development. Data is currently being collected to validate the educational impact of this course restructure and determine whether it has the intended effect of a more significant improvement on the PSVT:R from pretest to posttest.

Dean, A. K. (2017, June), Applied Spatial Visualization for Engineers Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--27598

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