Reasoning about Spatial Relations and Distributions: Supporting STEM Learning in Early Adolescence
Effective Years: 2023-2028
Spatial thinking is related to success in STEM disciplines. However, existing research has largely focused on small-scale spatial skills, such as mentally rotating objects. There is a critical need for research on how large-scale spatial skills, such as navigation and mapping, are related to success in STEM success, especially in the formative period of late childhood and early adolescence. This project will develop, implement, and evaluate a set of new tools and will gather new knowledge regarding reasoning about spatial relations and early STEM instruction. The research team will evaluate several virtual navigation measures to understand how they relate to real-life navigation for children, they will develop and validate an assessment instrument that measures geographic and spatial thinking in middle schoolers, and they will teach weeklong workshops on STEM topics and examine how comprehension and learning are related to the spatial skills, and whether these skills improve with instruction. Findings from this project will inform and enhance instruction in STEM at this age. This project is supported by NSF's EDU Core Research (ECR) program. The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that generates foundational knowledge in the field. Investments are made in critical areas that are essential, broad, and enduring: STEM learning and STEM learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.
This project studies spatial skills and reasoning and their relevance for STEM education in late childhood and early adolescence, which is a crucial formative period for mapping skills useful in STEM fields. The project will be conducted in three related streams of work. First, the researchers will develop and validate assessment measures to evaluate navigation, map use and geographic thinking and reasoning in late childhood and early adolescence. They will obtain reliability information on existing virtual environment paradigms, evaluate how data derived from various virtual large-scale measures compare, validate assessments of navigation in a virtual world against real-life navigation skills, and examine the relations of the various navigation measures to a test of map reading skills. They will develop and validate an assessment instrument that measures geographic and spatial perspective use in middle schoolers. The items will be developed based on released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) geography assessment questions for 8th grade and examined for construct relevance using expert ratings and Item Response Theory (IRT) statistics. The instrument will measure the ability of middle schoolers to observe and comprehend information, to explain geographic patterns and processes, to analyze geospatial problems and formulate appropriate solutions and alternatives, and to make use of different geographic tools and skills. Second, the research team will devise and refine these measures to study relations among large- and small-scale spatial skills in middle school children. Lastly, the team will determine how large-scale spatial skills relate to spatially oriented learning outcomes concerning STEM topics by teaching weeklong units on STEM topics that require thinking about distributions and ordered relations. They will look at the relationship between adolescents' large- and small-scale spatial skills and their geospatial analysis and geospatial reasoning skills assessed during the workshops to understand if students who have better baseline large- and small-scale spatial performance also have better engagement and performance in spatial workshops and how the skills improve given instruction. The activities will be multi-disciplinary and involve decision-making based on the analysis of georeferenced geospatial data. This work will broaden the understanding of the relation between spatial skills and STEM to encompass reasoning about spatial distributions, an essential component in scientific education and discovery. It will also build on the literature on the relationship between large- and small-scale spatial ability and will provide insights into the developmental linkages between large- and small-scale spatial skills for late childhood and early adolescence.
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.