ECR Projects

Explore past and current fundamental STEM education research projects across the three research areas that NSF's EDU Core Research (ECR) program funds, as well as across ECR funding types. Other search filters draw from both NSF's data and the ECR Hub's hand coding of award abstracts.

Ninth-grade biology students create cell models using clay.

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STEM Learning and Learning Environments STEM Learning and Learning Environments  

Core: Promoting Spatial Skill Development

Effective Years: 2022-2027

Spatial skills are a key predictor of success in STEM fields throughout the lifespan. When children first begin formal schooling, large individual differences in spatial skills are already present. These early emerging differences in spatial aptitude can have long-lasting, detrimental effects on students’ engagement with and performance in STEM classes. To address these issues, this research will conduct a series of studies with children between infancy and 8-years of age as well as adults to identify: 1) factors that contribute to differences in spatial skills in early childhood, and 2) new methods for promoting spatial skill development. The work will build on their novel theoretical construct of spatial structuring: an individual ability to structure abstract concepts (across domains) in terms of space. For example, how does grounding abstract concepts in space, as with the mental number line, facilitate reasoning about them? This research will provide new insights into the course of development of spatial skills and their relation to STEM achievement to set students up for success even before they set foot in the classroom.

This research will use a multi-method approach that involves longitudinal, observational, and experimental techniques to provide a comprehensive view of the cognitive and environmental factors that support spatial skill development between infancy and early childhood. The first study will use a longitudinal design to assess how spatial language competency and nonverbal spatial skills contribute to spatial skill development and math achievement. The second and third studies will explore how ability to ground abstract concepts in concrete spatial representations contributes to STEM readiness. By focusing on verbal and nonverbal abilities and using both correlational designs and experimental manipulations, this research will answer key questions related to spatial skill development and explore novel mechanisms that link spatial aptitude to success in STEM fields.

This project is funded by the EHR Core Research (ECR) program, which supports fundamental research on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.