Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Teaching Spatial Skills to Women Increases Success in STEM Disciplines

I have the well-deserved reputation for not being able to find my way out of a paper bag. For 20 years, my office was located along a nondescript, super-long hallway. And for 20 years, I would turn the wrong way about half the time trying to get from point A to point B along that hallway. I get turned around a lot. I’ve gotten used to it, and am well aware of my “spatial deficit” – so I ask for detailed directions and write them out (although GPS has made my life so much easier recently!).

rotation task

I am an extreme example of the gender gap in spatial skills. Many studies have shown that girls and women exhibit significantly lower spatial skills than males in tasks, especially mental rotation which is an important skill used in many STEM disciplines (Levine et al., 2016). Not surprisingly, there is controversy as to the underlying reason for this gender difference – nature versus nurture. Regardless of the basis for this gender gap, we are left wondering what can be done, if anything, to improve spatial skills in females. Does intervention have to occur during childhood to be effective, or can the “deficit” be overcome in teens and adults? And what impact, if any, does improving spatial skills have on success in STEM disciplines – especially at the college level and in career choice?

Enter Professor Sheryl Sorby, Visiting Professor in the Engineering Education and Innovation Center at The Ohio State University and Professor Emerita of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Technological University (Kris, 2016). When Dr. Sorby taught undergraduate students introductory engineering at MTU, she found that the women who were otherwise strong in math and science faltered in her class and tended to drop out of engineering all together. Dr. Sorby identified a weakness in spatial skills as the primary culprit and decided to do something about it. She developed a very successful spatial visualization class for all incoming engineering students.

Dr. Sorby’s spatial skill training emphasizing development of 3-D visualization (Sorby, 2009) was taught to engineering undergrads at Michigan Tech University and led to improved spatial skills and improved grades in STEM classes for both women and men. And women who went through the training were more likely to graduate with an engineering degree than control women who did not get the training (there was no difference for men).

As noted by Dr. Sorby (2009),

Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others may be struggling with a topic they find so easy. Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. These misconceptions could have a significant negative impact on the success of women engineering students. From the body of work described in this paper, it appears that 3-D spatial skills can indeed be developed through practice. The importance of sketching in developing 3-D spatial skills cannot be understated. By implementing a course aimed at developing the 3-D spatial skills of first-year engineering students, it appears to have had a positive impact on student success, especially for women.”

Dr. Sorby’s work shows that spatial skills can be taught, and that the intervention can be effective even in young adults. I wonder if a middle aged woman, who can’t find her way her way of paper bag, can also be trained?

For more information about Dr. Sorby’s spatial skills training including instructional materials*, see: https://www.higheredservices.org/

*Nancy Wayne and Women Advancing Together® have no financial interest in Higher Education Services.



Kris DF. Can Teaching Spatial Skills Help Bridge the STEM Gender Gap? KQED News 2016.

Levine SC, Foley A, Lourenco S, Ehrlich S and Ratliff K. Sex difference in spatial cognition: advancing the conversation. WIREs Cogn Sci 2016, 7:127–155.

Sorby SA. Educational Research in Developing 3‐D Spatial Skills for Engineering Students. International Journal of Science Education 2009, 31: 459-480.


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This entry was posted on May 1, 2018 by .

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