Leggo my Lego! Developing Spatial Intelligence for STEM Success

There’s a wonderful story about Lewis Terman, a psychologist instrumental in the development of IQ testing. In 1920, Terman began IQ testing of children, identifying those with scores above 135 as subjects of interest for future tracking. Two children, Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, took the test, but missed the cutoff for further consideration. Both grew up to earn PhD’s and win the Nobel Prize in physics.

What did Terman miss? One explanation could be that his testing assessed quantitative and verbal intelligence, but ignored the spatial intelligence which would help Alvarez and Shockley become so successful.

Spatial intelligence is the capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly. It is the ability to manipulate information presented in visuals, diagrams, or symbols.

Traditional standardized tests, like the SAT, emphasize verbal and quantitative skill assessment. Other tests, like the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), include testing for spatial intelligence. CogAT is taken by many secondary school students seeking admission into gifted and talented programs. Badged as “not an IQ test”, CogAT assesses a student’s abstract reasoning abilities in areas linked to school success, including verbal, quantitative, and non-verbal dimensions. Its non-verbal sections are designed to measure spatial intelligence, and include questions on paper folding, figure matrices, and figure classification.

Longitudinal studies indicate that spatial intelligence is crucial for success in STEM fields. Engineering schools now offer classes for first year students to encourage spatial skill development. Typical lessons include sketching handheld objects to sharpen skills in visualization and mental rotation of 3-D objects. Having found that “3-D rotation abilities exhibit robust gender differences, favoring males”, Professor Sheryl Sorby has researched ways in which such skills can be improved “especially for women engineering students.”

The College Board, which designs the SAT, noted in 2015 that the “ability to understand and analyze quantitative information and ideas expressed graphically in tables, graphs, charts, and the like is an essential skill for college- and career-ready students.” The SAT now incorporates informational graphics into its math, reading, and writing tests. Without explicitly admitting it, the College Board has implicitly conceded that spatial acuity should join mathematical intelligence and linguistic skills as predictors of future academic and career success.

So how can we encourage the development of spatial intelligence in our children and students? Here are a few ways.

Blocks: Encourage play with blocks, including Legos and wooden blocks. Children have been inspired through play with Froebel blocks since their invention in the mid-19th century. Many famous architects, artists, and scientists played with them while young, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Klee, Buckminster Fuller, and Albert Einstein.

Beyond Blocks: Make things. Tinker. Get out the erector set and construct something fabulous. Indulge in origami. Put together those bookcases from Ikea. Assemble a robot or a classic car model. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman acknowledged that childhood experiences in tinkering cultivated the lifelong habits in play and modeling which lead to his scientific success.

Puzzles: Play with puzzles, any puzzles. These include jigsaw puzzles, tangrams, sudoku, and other logic puzzles.

Tables, Charts, Graphs, Maps: Create, interpret, and demonstrate understanding of informational graphics. Draw a floorplan of your house. Make a chart showing height and weight over time. Analyze a graph in a magazine or newspaper. Trace the routes of famous explorers on a globe.

Real world games: Play board games, and typical childhood games like hide and seek.

Virtual world games: Play games on the computer. Games like Minecraft has been used to develop spatial acuity in collegiate and secondary school students. Other research confirms that navigating through and taking actions in First Person Shooter and Massive Multiplayer Online Games cultivate spatial intelligence.

Drawing: Transform imagined or actual 2-D and 3-D figures into detailed visualizations on the page. Imagine rotations of objects and capture them in drawings. Teaching students to draw 2-D and 3-D visualizations helps them learn to solve geometric problems on their own.

The importance of spatial intelligence has been historically underrated, but the evidence overwhelmingly confirms its importance. Let us use our time sequestered in our homes to help our kids develop more sophisticated spatial skills for STEM success in the future.