PsychologiCALL

On spatial cognition and STEM success, with Emily Farran

March 12, 2021 SalvesenResearch Season 2 Episode 6
PsychologiCALL
On spatial cognition and STEM success, with Emily Farran
Show Notes Transcript

Emily Farran is a developmental psychologist at the University of Surrey. She directs the Cognition Genes and Developmental Variability (CoGDeV) Lab with co-director Katie Gilligan-Lee. Emily specialises in the typical and atypical development of spatial cognition. During this podcast she chats to Sue about the typical development of spatial cognition and its relationship to the development of STEM expertise.

You can find out more about Emily's work by checking out her research profile here or following her on twitter here. Parents and teachers might also be interested in the practical tips covered in this blog post

The paper discussed in this podcast is:
Farran, E. K. Spatial ability as a gateway to STEM success. Impact: the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, 18, 19.

Many thanks to Naomi Meiksin for editing the transcript for this episode. 

Intro:

Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great . I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay, here I go.

Sue:

Hi, my name is Sue, from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Center at the University of Edinburgh and I'm recording a PsychologiCALL with , uh , professor Emily Farran , um, from the University of Surrey. And , um, she's going to be talking to me about some , uh , work that she's done. A kind of group of papers, looking at spatial ability in relation to STEM success. So science, technology, engineering, and maths . Is that right, Emily ?

Emily:

Yep, that's right, yeah.

Sue:

Great. And , um - so, hello, Emily , how are you doing today?

Emily:

Hi, Sue - yep, I'm fine, thank you.

Sue:

Fantastic. So tell me, what did you discover when you were looking at this , um, relationship between spatial ability and STEM success?

Emily:

Well, really, I've been interested in spatial thinking and spatial ability for a long while and when I started looking at it , um, with my lab group , um, in relation to STEM subjects (so specifically we're thinking about science and mathematics) we were looking at it in primary school children, and we found that spatial thinking is a really sort of integral contributor to success in science and maths. So, spatial thinking's very, very important , um , for children to be able to succeed in , in science and maths. And what's also quite important is that we found that spatial thinking is something that can be trained, so you can train spatial ability and this will have a downstream sort of positive impact , um , on maths ability. And we haven't looked at it in science yet, but that will be coming at some point.

Sue:

Gosh, that is really the Holy Grail, actually, isn't it? That psychologists could find a psychological phenomenon that you can train that makes a difference on a real world skill. So I'm quite jealous!

Emily:

Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And I mean, there's quite a lot of research coming through now. It's been a real kind of tsunami in the last - that sort of built up over the last 10 years of a lot more research into spatial thinking and, and what it's kind of downstream impacts are on sort of academic achievement.

Sue:

So, so before we go any further, then, could you just define what you mean by spatial thinking in , in sort of slightly more, um, y'know, real-world terms?

Emily:

Yeah - I was thinking about anything spatial that I might've done this morning and I could come up with quite a lot of things, particularly because I was trying to get all my three children dressed this morning. And I had to tell them, I had to use words like "back" and "in front", which are spatial words. I had to get them to rotate their t-shirts so that the label was at the back. I had to make sure they got into the right car door so they could understand the relationship between their seat in the car and which side of the car they needed to get into. So you use it all the time. You need it, you use it when you're packing bags to make sure that everything fits in, you use it when you're stacking a dishwasher, getting dressed. Um, even just sort of navigating (this is called large-scale spatial ability) so when you need to get yourself from a to b. So children in a school, you know, if they need to go to the toilet from their classroom they need to know the series of turns needed to get them there and to get them back again. Um, so it's all about locations and dimensions of objects and the relationships between different objects and also between yourself and different objects.

Sue:

And so in terms of sort of investigating how that relates to STEM subjects, is it, is the kind of theory that, that same thinking process is used when you're exploring things that are more abstract, right? Like number relationships, or is that the idea?

Emily:

Yeah, absolutely, Sue. You use a lot of visualization, which is a spatial skill. So , um, being able to kind of mentally think about things in your head and to visualize things moving in your head - so for example, in physics, you might be able to think about a ball moving and the different speeds and where it will land. Um, just in front of me, now, if I want to think about, "oh, I need to pick up my coffee cup, where does the handle need to be?" I can think about visualizing , um , sort of rotating it around. Um, in maths, um , there's a lot of relationship in maths between spatial scaling. So understanding things at different scales and how they relate to one another. So , um, thinking about , um, a map, for example, is a small scale version , um, of , of it's a small scale representation of the real world. And, and in , um, in math it seems to be related to proportional reasoning. Um, so understanding ratios and fractions and things like that. Um, so, so there's, there's lots of different links of the sort of shared processes between particular spatial skills and particular maths or science skills.

Sue:

Alright. And so how - so thinking more about the kind of methods of the work you've been doing in this area, how do you go about measuring spatial ability in a kind of experimental context? You know , do you, do you have kind of clever tasks or are you asking about kind of real world behaviours? What sort of things do you use?

Emily:

Yeah. I mean, what we're doing at the moment is trying to kind of isolate particularly pure spatial abilities so that we can think about these pure spatial abilities and how they individually contribute to , um , different aspects of maths or different aspects of science. So for the papers that I talked about in the article that I put forward to you , um, we were using a model put forward by David Uttal and Nora Newcombe and their colleagues, where they think about spatial ability as being divided into four different categories. Um , and these are based on two , um , distinctions: one between extrinsic and intrinsic skills, which I can talk about what that means, and the other between spatial, sorry , not spatial - static and dynamic skills. Um , so extrinsic skills are about the relationship, the location of objects and the relationship between them. So these are kind of like the navigation class I was talking about earlier. Um, intrinsic skills , um, relate to the spatial properties of a particular object and the part and parts of an object. Um, right, and dynamic and spatial, uh, dynamic and static skills are a bit more self-explanatory - so dynamic involves movement and static is , is something that's still, so like a map. Um , so we were able to kind of, in experimental tasks, isolate , um , the different four types of spatial skills using kind of computer-based tasks or , um , pen and pencil tasks, and then look at the sort of variance in children's ability to do those tasks and how that related to their variance in maths ability or space - or , um , science ability.

Sue:

And so , um, ah - this is so...it's so often the case I'm torn between multiple questions that I want to ask. So maybe - I wonder quickly if you could just pick one of those tasks and just describe it in a bit more detail. I'm just really curious to get a sense of it, cause these aren't tasks I'm familiar with and maybe some of our listeners -

Emily:

Yeah, okay. So to understand something like an intrinsic dynamic spatial skill, we might have had a mental folding task or a mental rotation task. So, to explain a mental rotation task, then you're asked to imagine an animal , um, rotating in your head. Um , and so you're presented with , um, a rotated with animal and two mirror image animals, and you need to rotate the one at the top to see which one of the ones at the bottom it match matches. So that would be an intrinsic dynamic skill. Mental folding is similar. You have , uh , kind of , um, layout , um, where you have to mentally fold , um, oh, I can't really explain this one very well. You have to mentally , um , fold the image so that you can say whether different parts of the image would touch each other when you were folding them. Um , so it's kind of a 2D unfolded shape that you need to mentally fold into a 3d shape and say whether it would make sense or not. Um so that would be an intrinsic dynamics task. Spatial scaling is where you have two different representations of the same environment , um , but at different scales. Um, so for example, if you've got two different maps and on that map - on one of the maps, you would have , um , an egg, for example. If - we had one where it was a farmer's field and there was an egg, and then you have to say on the, on the smaller representation where that egg would be. Um so you're trying to understand the relationship in spatial scale between those two different things.

Sue:

This is one of the things I love so much about developmental psychology, is the kind of creativity that people put into coming up with these tasks that, as you say, try and extract a kind of pure , um, psychological skill or , you know , kind of cognitive skill, right? Uh , from, from all the complexity of how it might be applied in real world, in a way that's engaging for children and understandable.

Emily:

Oh no, absolutely, and also the children getting that balance between getting enough trials through without them getting bored. Um, and certainly the spatial scaling task - Casey Gilligan must've done this task over 150 times with children and she used to come back with really bad arm-ache because she had this massive map that she had to sort of turn the pages of multiple times for each child. Um , and then they were looking at the computer screen to see if it related to the smaller version. Um , so there's [laughs] lots of kind of factors in there that , that yeah, don't come out in the paper.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah. I've had similar things, definitely. Um , so , so, so thinking then about the analysis. So you , you talked about how spatial ability could be broken down into these two different kinds of dichotomies, right? So you've got four different categories then. So do you find , um, you know, when you're looking at the relationship between those and kind of STEM skills, do you find consistent is , you know, is it all four that make a difference or are there kind of variabilities?

Emily:

Yeah. There's some things that come out quite strongly and other things that come out on particular topics , um, and not on others. So, for example , um, intrinsic dynamics skills, so the mental folding or the mental rotation skills , um , seem to come out quite a lot in both science and maths. And I think this is related to the visualization skills. So there's so many times in both maths and science, that you need to be able to visualize something in your head. So in maths, when you get kind of maths word problems, then you need to kind of translate that somehow into numbers and try and work it out by visualizing it. Um, and, and the other things that come out quite strongly for maths were spatial scaling. Um, and then some things are a bit more specific. So disembedding, which is , um, was our intrinsic static tasks where people had to process the parts , um, of a , of a whole object and sort of, and disimbed those parts from the whole, we found is quite important for chemistry, but it wasn't necessarily important for biology and physics. Um, and I think this is related to the kinds of diagrams that you get in chemistry and that you might need to compare diagrams across each other in the component parts. You know, if you've got different kinds of - different numbers of beakers and different numbers of ice cubes and things like that, then you're having to disimbed the parts a bit more than you might be , um, in other types of science. Um, so yeah, so some things are quite, quite consistent and other things they're more specific to diff - to different types of maths or different types of science.

Sue:

That's so interesting. And, and, and it occurs to me that it's not just , um, so these relationships are not just relationships with, you know, the sort of conceptual knowledge that you need to accumulate in order to be good at maths or good at physics or whatever, it's also relationships with the kind of specific ways that we teach those subjects. You know? Um, when you're talking about that, the kind of chemistry diagrams and so on, like that's, that's very much a kind of property of how chemistry is taught in our school system and rather than necessarily about the fundamental understandings that, that someone needs to have to be able to be good at chemistry. Does that, does that make sense?

Emily:

Yeah, I mean, I guess for, for all these sorts of academic subjects, there are particular tools that are being used and being used in different ways , um , for different subjects. Um, and diagrams and graphs, sketches, and maps, they're all kind of spatial tools. And I , and I guess you're right - in order to get concepts across, it might be different , um , how you do it in biology compared to chemistry.

Sue:

It's really interesting. Um, and I suppose, so one more question I should ask before we sort of think about maybe some of the consequences of the work you've been doing. Um , I haven't really asked you how you, how you measured STEM success, right? So I'm getting the impression that it was based on kind of real world school attainment? Or did you do some kind of separate , um ,

Emily:

Yeah, it kind of, it varied. So the maths portion of this was led by Katie Gilligan-Lee and the science portion was led by Alex Hodgkiss and it varied in how it was done. Um , so Alex's background was that he was a primary school teacher, and so he, he used very curriculum based science , um, tasks. Um , so he put together some , some sort of science tests based on the curriculum for the age groups that he was using, um , um, for chemistry, biology and physics. Um, and he could divide those up into sort of experimental categories in terms of the types of questions he was asking. Um , for Katie , um, it maths, there's a bit more knowledge as to how , um , it can be categorized as different sort of sub domains of math . And so she was able to , um, so we had one sort of standardized math class, which you could say the kind of, of measure of classroom-based maths . Um , but then across different types of studies she used , uh, I think sort of, as our understanding was, understanding was evolving, we used, she used sort of different sub-domains of math . So , um, she, she used sort of arithmetic and geometry. Um, and at different points she used sort of number line tasks or more sort of traditional kind of psychology , um, driven tasks. Um, so thinking about approximate number skills and things like that.

Sue:

Mmm, that's interesting. Um, so, so I want to get onto to thinking about what we can learn from this , because you said right at the beginning that there was some evidence that we could train these spatial abilities and have downstream effects on, on things like maths skills. So I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about how that training might work and the kinds of findings that you , you've been getting?

Emily:

Yeah. So the majority of studies have looked at associations, but I'd say in the last, the five years, there's been a lot more coming through , um, related to training. Um , and the , the paper that I mentioned before by David Uttal, that was a meta-analysis where he did look at training. And he was able to show, with fairly large effect sizes, that, that training of spatial ability , um, did work , um, on the - it was mainly on the, the research at that time, it was mainly on kind of older children and university students. So there isn't, or there wasn't, a huge amount on primary school children. And actually Katie Gilligan-Lee , um , I'm kind of waiting excitedly for the results of a meta-analysis that she's running at the moment to look at the, the more recent studies where they've looked at spatial training , um, in primary school aged children. But, but, you know, she said it's looking promising and it seems that spatial training , um , is something that works. Um, she's been looking at it in relation to maths. Um , so, so yeah, I mean, this has a real key message for teachers because if we know that , um, integrating spatial thinking abilities into the curriculum is , is, is likely to have a strong effect on the children's understanding of maths and of science , um, then why wouldn't you do it? Um, so, you know, this is something that I think , um, we're trying to , um, kind of get the message through to teachers. And certainly there are lots of teachers that do read the research. And so, you know, people are , um, really trying to think about what spatial reasoning and what spatial thinking can be integrated into the curriculum.

Sue:

And do you think so, so there's, you know, that would obviously then , um, benefit everyone in the class. So making perhaps, you know, spatial skills a more explicit, sort of conscious, thing that is taught within the curriculum, right? But do you also think that this kind of training could have some benefits for kids who are particularly struggling with their STEM subjects?

Emily:

Yeah, I mean, I think in some ways it's just about enlightening children to the , to the idea that, "oh, you could actually think about this in your head, you could actually try and have a sort of image of this in your head and , and be able to manipulate things in your head." And , and certainly Katie ran one training study and she said to some of the children, just that kind of saying to them "did you know, you could do this in your head?" was like some kind of Eureka moment. So sometimes it is as straightforward as, you know, if children are struggling it might just be that they don't - they haven't really be armed with the tools to understand , um, that , that they can, they can kind of use visualization, they can use sketching , um , to sort of draw on their spatial abilities. Um, and this kind of helps them with their problem solving skills , um, as well. Um, so this kind of, a lot of downstream impacts then in, in terms of, well, particularly kinda the problem solving skills we need in everyday life and these kind of work ready skills that the employers talk about.

Sue:

I think that's so great. I think you're right. Cause cause often, particularly perhaps STEM subjects, can feel like a bit of a black box. You know, like you either or you don't. Um , you know, there's some sort of sense of mystery about what's going on. So I just think that sounds like a very , um, really nice way to think about it is just to draw, draw it out more explicitly. So , um, we should probably draw to a close in order to maintain our attempt to be a so-called "bite-sized" podcast, but I did want to ask before we finish um , for any kind of early career researchers or students who are listening, is there any , um , words of wisdom that you would like to impart to them , um , uh, based on your kind of academic career?

Emily:

Yeah, I mean, I was thinking about this and I think the main thing is to pick your collaborators well. Make sure that you, you know, when you go for a PhD, you know , don't just be wowed by, you know , the fact that there's a PhD or an offer , think about whether you're going to get a supportive supervisor, think about whether you're going to have a good relationship with that supervisor. Um, and, and, and beyond that, when you get into, you know, your first postdoc or your lecturing position, you need to make sure that your collaborators are going to sort of help you, they're going to pull their weight , um, because it's just worth so much to have really good collaborators that you get on well with. And that it's, that you kind of have a , a collaborative and sort of collegiate way of going on. Um, and it just, yeah, it makes a big difference. And I guess as well, use your networks so that you can, you can find these people.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I feel like my whole career so far has been a processes of refining my mental list of people I want to work with.

Emily:

Yeah, no, absolutely. And , you know, things, things change and people dip in and out of how busy they are and things like that. But I think the essence of having people that you can kind of work through problems with , um, and you're not feeling that you're kind of, you know , doing stuff alone , um, in your own silo. I mean, I, I think it's worth so much.

Sue:

Mmm. Completely agree. Um, well thank you so much for your time, Emily, and for anyone listening, you will be able to find out more about Emily's work by following the links in the podcast description. So, thanks so much.

Emily:

Thank you very much!

Sue:

Take care. Bye!

Emily:

Okay, bye!

Outro:

Okay. We did it. I thought that went quite smoothly!