CEAS Professor Researches How Spatial Skills Shape Student Success

By:    Brandon Pytel
Date: April 30, 2018

CEAS engineering education professor Sheryl Sorby, PhD, researches spatial visualization skills and their role in engineering students’ success.

Sorby headshot

Sorby researches spatial visualization skills in engineering education.

Success in engineering isn’t limited to just traditional math and science skills. Engineering careers also require high-level spatial skills. One professor at the University of Cincinnati (UC) is exploring the ways spatial skills, or the ability to imagine the orientation and relation of objects, affect students’ performance in engineering programs.

Sheryl Sorby, PhD, was hired through the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s (CEAS) 50-in-5 initiative. She is a professor in UC’s Department of Engineering Education who hopes to bring spatial skills education into the department’s first-year plan.

Sorby’s interest in spatial skills comes from her own personal experience. As a civil engineering student at Michigan Technological University, Sorby struggled her first year in an engineering graphics course.

“I almost left engineering because I had such a bad experience in this class,” she said. “I found chemistry and calculus easy, but when I took this class, it was like I hit a wall – for the first time in my life, I couldn’t do something in the classroom.”

Sorby has spent over twenty years researching spatial skills and their role in engineering success, and she found that her struggles weren’t just a personal problem. In fact, there is a gap between women and men when it comes to spatial visualization. Sorby sees an opportunity to close this gap.

“Just because we start with a small difference between genders doesn’t mean we have to have a significant gap,” said Sorby. Though women start with less spatial visualization skills than men, her research shows they can more than make up for it in learning comprehension. And since engineering is historically a male-dominated profession, understanding spatial skills and the gender gap surrounding them is inherent to diversifying the field.

Sorby also doesn’t think engineering students should have to wait until college to establish spatial skills. She currently has a grant to conduct a survey of 40 different middle schools across the country, studying the impact of spatial skills training in 7th-grade students.

“It’s great that we do spatial skills training at the university level,” said Sorby, “but if we really want to diversify STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), we need to start younger.” If we wait until these students enter an engineering college, she said, we might have already missed our chance.

Another theory for teaching spatial skills is that engineering students operate on a growth mindset. If students can overcome difficulties with spatial skills early on, they will be more likely to persist down the road in other areas.

Sorby sees simple solutions that can help children develop these spatial skills. Parents exposing their children to Legos, 3-D computer games and even IKEA instructions can all positively affect a child’s spatial development.

More research shows that spatial cognition is linked to solving certain types of engineering problems. As UC and CEAS continue to shape young minds in the STEM field, Sorby is excited to bring spatial skills into the curriculum. More attention to spatial skills can accelerate student’s success, close the gender gap, diversify the STEM field and better prepare future engineers to make positive contributions to the field.