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The Relationship Between Spatial Skills and Solving Problems in Engineering Mechanics

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

The ABCs of FBDs

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Sheryl A. Sorby University of Cincinnati

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Dr. Sheryl Sorby is currently a Professor of Engineering 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 other educational programs.

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Sylvie Vieau


So Yoon Yoon University of Cincinnati Orcid 16x16

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So Yoon Yoon, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Department of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) at the University of Cincinnati. She received her Ph.D. in Gifted Education, and an M.S.Ed. in Research Methods and Measurement with a specialization in Educational Psychology, both from Purdue University. Her work centers on engineering education research as a psychometrician, program evaluator, and data analyst, with research interests in spatial ability, creativity, engineering-integrated STEM education, and meta-analysis. As a psychometrician, she has revised, developed, and validated more than 10 instruments beneficial for STEM education practice and research. She has authored/co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and conference proceedings and served as a journal reviewer in engineering education, STEM education, and educational psychology. She has also served as a co-PI, an external evaluator, or an advisory board member on several NSF-funded projects.

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Spatial visualization is defined as the “process of apprehending, encoding, and mentally manipulating three-dimensional spatial forms.” Spatial cognition has been widely studied throughout psychology and education from more than 100 years. Engineering students and engineering professionals exhibit some of the highest levels of spatial skills compared to their counterparts in other majors/careers. Numerous studies have shown the link between spatial skills and success in engineering and interventions aimed at enhancing spatial skills have demonstrated a concomitant improvement in student success, as measured by grades earned and retention/graduation. The question remains: How do well-developed spatial skills contribute to engineering student success? One hypothesis is that spatial skills contribute to a student’s ability to solve unfamiliar problems. Recent studies have demonstrated that spatial skills contribute to success in solving problems from mathematics, chemical engineering, and electrical engineering. The study outlined in this paper, extends this work to examine the impact of spatial skills on the ability to solve problems from engineering mechanics. In this pilot study, a total of 47 students from upper division mechanical engineering courses completed a test of spatial skills and also were asked to solve 5-6 problems from introductory statics/physics. Results showed that a statistically significant positive correlation was found between spatial scores and the percent correct on the mechanics test. Individual problems were also examined to determine if spatial skills appeared to play a role in their solution. Some problems appeared to rely on spatial thinking; others did not. Results from this pilot study will be used to conduct an in-depth study examining the relationship between spatial skills and solving problems in engineering mechanics. This paper outlines key findings from this pilot study and makes recommendations for future work in this area.

Sorby, S. A., & Vieau, S., & Yoon, S. Y. (2021, July), The Relationship Between Spatial Skills and Solving Problems in Engineering Mechanics Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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