Asee peer logo

The Relationship Between Spatial Skills and Solving Problems in Chemical Engineering

Download Paper |


2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Problem Solving and Communication in Chemical Engineering

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Norman W. Loney University of Cincinnati

visit author page

Norman Loney received his undergraduate and graduate chemical engineering and mathematics degrees from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). He has authored or coauthored more than 64 publications and presentations relating to the use of applied mathematics in chemical engineering since joining the Chemical Engineering department at NJIT in 1991. His most noteworthy publication is the textbook: “Applied Mathematical Methods for Chemical Engineers” 2nd Ed. published by Taylor & Francis in 2007. His peer reviewed textbook has been adopted by nine schools and is sold in 25 countries.
He has served the NJIT community in many different capacities as Chair of the Otto H. York Department of Chemical, Biological and Pharmaceutical Engineering, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies and Chair of the Undergraduate Curriculum Review Committee. His dedication to teaching has been rewarded by receiving the 2007 Excellence in Teaching Award, the 2013 Saul K Fenster Innovation in Engineering Education award for leading the development of scoring rubrics to address ABET accreditation concerns and the 2014 Excellence in Advising Award all within the College of Engineering. Norman is also an ABET evaluator.

visit author page


Gavin Duffy Dublin Institute of Technology Orcid 16x16

visit author page

I am a lecturer and researcher in the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering, Dublin Institute of Technology. The subjects I teach include instrumentation, control & automation and chemical process technology. I mostly use problem and project-based learning and am an advocate of all student-centred learning techniques.
My research area is spatial cognition and its role in STEM learning. I have investigated the role of spatial ability in problem solving, electric circuit analysis and other tasks among engineering students. I am also interested in studying the role of spatial cognition in other disciplines and in younger age groups.

visit author page


Sheryl A. Sorby University of Cincinnati

visit author page

Dr. Sheryl Sorby is currently a Professor of STEM Education at the University of Cincinnati 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 $14M 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 Foundation 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.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Through numerous studies, spatial skills have been shown to be important to overall success in engineering; however, most studies have focused on overall rather than specific areas of success. In this study, we examined the relationship between scores on a test of spatial visualization and a specific area of success—problem-solving in chemical engineering. Our overall quest included determining if a relationship exists between spatial ability and solving problems in chemical engineering; and if there is, what is the nature of such a relationship? In addition, we also wanted to know, how that relationship relates, to previous work on overall success in chemical engineering with respect to spatial skills? We tested students in a junior level chemical engineering thermodynamics course using a test of spatial visualization, the Mental Cutting Test (MCT). The test has twenty-five items and students were given 20 minutes to solve the test. Students were then presented with 13 problems from a sophomore-level chemical engineering course and were given 70 minutes to solve these over two class periods. All students had the same amount of time for solving problems with the assumption that those with better problem-solving skills would likely correctly solve a larger number of problems compared to the weaker students. Results indicate a strong correlation between the number of correct chemical engineering problems and the MCT results (R2 = 0.34435, p < 0.0001). Additionally, there were indications that spatial skills may be more relevant in solving some types of problems compared to others, and problem representation may be a strong indicator of success in chemical engineering problem solving. That is, those students with high levels of spatial ability are better at problem representation, which enables them to be more successful problem solvers. In this paper, the project results are presented along with a detailed analysis of student performance on two of the 13 problems.

Loney, N. W., & Duffy, G., & Sorby, S. A. (2019, June), The Relationship Between Spatial Skills and Solving Problems in Chemical Engineering Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33419

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2019 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015