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Using Origami and CAD as Tools for Spatial Ability Training for First-year Female Engineering Students

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-year Programs: Research and Spatial Skills

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Mayari I. Serrano Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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MAYARI SERRANO is currently a graduate research assistant in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. She earned her B.S. degree in Biotechnology Engineering from the Army Polytechnic School, Quito, Ecuador. She completed her M.S. in Computer and Information Technology at Purdue University. Mayari is currently a PhD student at Purdue University and is working in for the Women in Engineering Program. Her interests include foster STEM enthusiasm, and technology innovation.

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Suzanne Zurn-Birkhimer Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Dr. Suzanne Zurn-Birkhimer is Associate Director of the Women in Engineering Program and Associate Professor (by courtesy) in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer conducts research and leads retention activities including administration of the undergraduate and graduate mentoring programs and the teaching of the Women in Engineering seminar courses. For the past decade, Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer’s research has focused on broadening participation of women and underrepresented group in STEM fields. Recently, she has been investigating the intersection of education and career path with cultural identity and is developing strategies to inform programming and policies that facilitate recruitment and retention of underrepresented populations in academia. In 2012 Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer was presented with an Outstanding Alumni Award from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and in 2019 the College of Science Distinguished Alumni Award at Purdue University. Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer earned her B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Minnesota, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from Purdue University.

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This Complete Evidence-based Practice paper will describe the development, implementation, and analysis of an online Spatial Skills Training Workshop employed in a Women in Engineering first-year seminar course over the past three years. The ability to mentally manipulate objects is known as spatial reasoning. These skills include the cognitive abilities of mental rotation, spatial perception, and spatial visualization. Extensive research shows that well-developed spatial skills have a signification correlation to higher overall grades; better science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills; higher retention rates in STEM majors; and are indicative of a propensity for STEM. Gender differences in spatial skills have also been well-documented and indicate that women consistently and significantly score lower than men on spatial skills tests. This disparity is commonly attributed to a combination of environmental factors, math performance, and the types of courses, toys, and sports in which a child engages. It is important then, for engineering students, and particularly female engineering students, to have the opportunity to continually develop their spatial abilities early in their college careers. Of not is additional research that shows that improving female students’ spatial skills would increase retention rates for women in STEM fields. Fortunately, spatial skills are malleable and even a small amount of training can improve skills. Continuing to practice and develop spatial skills can be as simple as repetition and practice. 3D sketching has been shown to be very effective in enhancing spatial skills. However, students may be drawn to fun, relatable, more creative ways to develop their spatial skills such as origami or CAD. Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, for example, has been proven to increase spatial visualization skills and one’s level of geometric understanding. Utilizing computer-aided design (CAD) software has also been shown to improve differential aptitude, mental rotation, and spatial visualization. This multi-year study focused on developing an online tool for students to continue to practice and develop their spatial skills outside of the classroom. Engineering curriculum is already very full and it is nearly impossible to add an additional required course into the first year. Online spatial training has been shown to improve spatial skills over the course of several weeks, after as little as six contact hours. Therefore, creating an innovative, independent, easy to access online workshop could benefit students wishing to continue to develop their spatial skills or instructors wishing to add a course component without surrendering in-class instruction time. For the past three years, a semester-long, twelve-module workshop consisting of a blend of origami-based modules and CAD-based modules has been developed through an iterative process. The Purdue Spatial Visualization Test (PSVT) was utilized to measure participants’ spatial aptitude. The PSVT has three components: Rotations which evaluates mental rotation abilities, Views which assess spatial perception, and Developments which examines spatial visualization. Each participant completed timed pre-PSVTs prior to the 12-week workshop and timed post-PSVTs at the conclusion of the workshop. Five workshop formats were created and tested to examine the impact on a participant’s spatial ability. Weekly modules focused on either origami or computer-aided design (CAD) tasks, or a combination of both, and were designed to be completed, on average, in one hour. Workshops differed in the number of origami modules versus CAD modules, the order of the modules, as well as the progression of difficulty through the workshop. All participants were first-year female students enrolled in a Women in Engineering seminar course; participants were separated into a control group (students who did not participant in a workshop) and five workshop groups. Early results showed that all participants had a statistically significant gain on all three PSVTs. However, only those who completed one of the five workshops earned 70% (considered passing) or greater on all of the post-PSVTs. This study will examine average gains between pre and post-PSVT scores to determine which, if any, of the five workshops were significantly better in increasing spatial aptitude. These scores will also be evaluated in the context of the participants’ country of origin, intended engineering major, prior origami and/or CAD experience, enjoyment doing origami and/or CAD, as well as whether participants’ parents or guardians are engineers to determine if there is a best workshop permutation for a particular group of students.

Serrano, M. I., & Zurn-Birkhimer, S. (2020, June), Using Origami and CAD as Tools for Spatial Ability Training for First-year Female Engineering Students Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35468

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