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Performance by Gender on University Placement Tests in Mathematics and Spatial Skills

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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

Mathematics Division Technical Session 4

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Gavin Duffy Ohio State University Orcid 16x16

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For the current academic year I am a visiting scholar at Ohio State University with my home institute being Dublin Institute of Technology where I am a lecturer in the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering. AT OSU I am working on a research project that is investigating the relationship between spatial ability and problem solving in engineering education. Before joining academia I worked in industry as a chemical engineer and control systems engineer and those are the topics that I teach in the DIT.

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Sheryl A. Sorby Ohio State University

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Dr. Sheryl Sorby is currently a Professor of STEM Education at The Ohio State University and was recently a Fulbright Scholar at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Dublin, Ireland. She is a professor emerita of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Technological University and the P.I. or co-P.I. on more than $9M in grant funding, most for educational projects. She is the former Associate Dean for Academic Programs in the College of Engineering at Michigan Tech and she served at the National Science Foundataion as a Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education from January 2007 through August 2009. Prior to her appointment as Associate Dean, Dr. Sorby served as chair of the Engineering Fundamentals Department at Michigan Tech. She received a B.S. in Civil Engineering, an M.S. in Engineering Mechanics, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, all from Michigan Tech. Dr. Sorby has a well-established research program in spatial visualization and is actively involved in the development of various educational programs.

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Austin Mack Ohio State University


Brian Bowe Dublin Institute of Technology

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Brian Bowe is the Head of Learning Development in the College of Engineering & Built Environment, Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). Brian holds a BSc in Applied Science (Physics & Mathematics), a MA in Higher Education and a PhD (Physics) from Trinity College Dublin. In 2000, as an academic member of the School of Physics DIT, he formed the Physics Education Research Group. In 2008, he established an Engineering Education Research Group and in September 2013, he, along with colleagues, created a new research group to encompass all education research activities in the College: “Contributions to Research in Engineering, Architecture & Technology Education” (CREATE). This new education research group already has 18 faculty members, 6 PhD students and a visiting professor from the US. Brian has supervised 8 postgraduate students to completion (5 PhDs & 3 MPhils) and is currently supervising 5 PhD students, all engaged in education research. Brian has also facilitated over 300 education development workshops on problem-based learning, assessment, curriculum development and peer instruction across 10 countries. His education research interests include examining students’ approaches to learning within group-based project-driven pedagogies, epistemological development, progression, conceptual understanding and pedagogical evaluations.

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The ability to visualize objects and situations in one’s mind and to manipulate those images is a cognitive skill vital to many career fields, especially those that require work with graphical images. There is evidence to suggest that well-developed 3D spatial skills are critical to success in Engineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, Medicine, Biology, and Dentistry. In fact, most technical career fields require excellent 3D spatial skills. Spatial abilities have been widely studied and are known to be fundamental to higher-level thinking, reasoning, and creative processes. Individuals vary widely in spatial skills; however, research on mental imagery has shown that component skills can be improved through training and practice.

Through this research design we will examine student performance on two diagnostic tests they are required to complete during first-year orientation at a large public university. There is evidence to suggest that spatial skills are predictors of success for certain types of mathematics problems and we will use this data to determine if this is the case. In particular, spatial skills have been shown to be critical to success in solving word problems. Most of the work relating to word problems and spatial skills has been conducted at the K-12 level. We are particularly interested in determining if there is a link between spatial skills and the ability to solve word problems at the university level.

The objective of this research project are to determine the relationship between spatial skills and math problem-solving skills. The specific research questions to be answered through this study include: • Do spatial skills predict success on a mathematics placement test routinely administered at the university for first-year engineering students? • Do spatial skills predict the ability to solve certain types of specific problems (e.g., trigonometry) from the mathematics placement exam for first-year engineering students?

This paper will outline the findings from this study and will examine implications for curricular reform based on these results.

Duffy, G., & Sorby, S. A., & Mack, A., & Bowe, B. (2017, June), Performance by Gender on University Placement Tests in Mathematics and Spatial Skills Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28737

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