The purpose of the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) is to develop the science of spatial learning and to use this knowledge to transform educational practice, supporting children and adults in acquiring the scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) skills required for effective participation in an increasingly high-technology society and global economy.
SILC was established to achieve two goals: to found an integrated, interdisciplinary field of spatial learning and to use the knowledge it produces to improve STEM education. Realizing the first goal requires bringing together multiple lines of work on spatial thinking and learning from a variety of traditional disciplines (e.g., cognitive science, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, education, STEM disciplines), and integrating them to achieve new insights and synergies directed at understanding spatial knowledge and skills, particularly those that are important in the STEM disciplines. Realizing the second goal requires using this knowledge to develop a set of powerful tools for spatial learning that can be honed into effective, deployable educational techniques and practices for STEM learning, including advanced technology (e.g., intelligent educational software), effective curriculum units (e.g., in elementary school mathematics), engaging activities (e.g., in children's museums), and general assessment instruments (e.g., testing children's spatial skills, testing adults' STEM-relevant spatial skills).
Spatial learning is the acquisition of spatial knowledge and skills, and the use of spatial knowledge and skills to facilitate learning in both spatial and non-spatial domains.
Spatial learning is crucial for addressing the increasing demand for a scientifically and technologically sophisticated workforce. Spatial learning provides the foundation for a wide range of reasoning skills in STEM-based activities, from solving mathematical problems to designing new products to understanding graphical depictions of complex systems. For example, geoscientists visualize the processes that affect the formation of the Earth, and engineers anticipate how forces will affect the design of a bridge. Physical scientists also use spatial models and diagrams, such as the periodic table, to reflect systematic regularities in the physical world. However, spatial learning and the evidence-based use of spatial visualization tools are often neglected in efforts to improve STEM education.
Spatial skills are a strong predictor of entry into STEM disciplines in college as well as into STEM careers. Large representative data sets show this predictive effect even when spatial skills are measured in early adolescence, decades before the STEM outcomes are known (Shea, Lubinski & Benbow, 2001; Wai, Lubinski & Benbow, 2009; Webb, Lubinski & Benbow, 2007). Many shorter-term, experimental studies tell the same story. For example, spatial skills influence the ability to interpret graphs and solve problems in physics (Kozhevnikov, Motes & Hegarty, 2007), and affect success in training for medical careers (Hegarty, Keehner, Khooshabeh & Montello, 2009; Wanzel et al., 2002). Research on how to increase the level of spatial functioning in the population could therefore significantly improve the overall effectiveness of the workforce, as well as increase access to STEM disciplines among diverse populations, thereby reducing gender and SES differences in spatial functioning and increasing social equity.
Substantial improvement of spatial learning skills is possible and there is evidence that such improvement matters to STEM success. Meta-analyses by Baenninger and Newcombe (1989) and by Uttal, Meadow, Hand and Newcombe (in press. Temporary Link.) show that spatial skills are malleable, and work by Sorby (2009) shows that intervention to increase spatial skills in low-scoring prospective engineering majors increases their chance of completing an engineering degree.
The time is right for a full-scale investment in developing the science of spatial learning. Making this investment now could lead to tremendous future benefits. For comparison, consider how substantial investments in reading research approximately 20 years ago catalyzed progress in that field, leading to advances in the understanding of cognitive and neurological processes that in turn provided the foundation for developing effective strategies to combat illiteracy and reading disability. We are now in a comparable position with respect to spatial learning as rapid progress can have a major impact on education and literacy in mathematics and science.