Early spatial thinking skills predictor of STEM achievement

Recent graduates may be surprised to learn that the vocabulary their parents used with them as children may have had a hand in their chosen field of study. Those graduating with a STEM-related degree (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) can look forward to the more than 8 million jobs that will be available in those fields by 2018.

Early research shows spatial thinking – how we make sense of space, shapes, sizes and recreate patterns – is an important predictor of STEM achievement and careers. A study called Project Talent found that high school students with high scores on spatial tests were much more likely to choose STEM-related careers than those with lower scores. But how early can spatial thinking skills be detected and who can influence spatial language development?

In a recent study, Shannon M. Pruden, assistant professor for FIU’s Department of Psychology, examines the use of spatial language – words such as big, tall, circle, curvy – by children 14 to 46 months and their parents. Results show that preschool-age children who hear their parents describe the size, shape and properties of objects, tend to use those words themselves and perform better on spatial skills tests.

“We found that children whose parents used more words from the spatial categories targeted performed better in the spatial tests used to examine the children’s ability to mentally rotate objects, their ability to make analogies between two spatial figures and their ability to recreate designs using some blocks,” Pruden said. The study is the first to indicate that children’s early spatial language is related to their parents’ use of spatial language, and learning to use a wide range of such words predicts their later spatial skills.

For parents, talking to their children about the spatial world is a relatively easy way to enhance their child’s spatial language and thinking. Noting the size of different people, using words describing the size and shape of their favorite things, and using toys conducive to spatial development such as puzzles and blocks are all simple tasks parents can do.

Homemade puzzle idea

The holiday break is the perfect time to implement some of these activities. As for toys, it is not necessary to buy expensive brand-name wooden blocks or puzzles. “You can use cardboard boxes in different sizes or draw your own puzzles they can cut out themselves,” Pruden said. Anyone, regardless of income, can help their children develop spatial skills that may help to increase their interest and achievement in math and science.

As director of The Project on Language and Spatial Development at FIU, Pruden conducts research on language and how to improve spatial competence. She is currently working on research about gender differences in spatial thinking as well as the impact of multi-language homes in children’s language use and spatial development.

Pruden’s research was supported by the National Institute of Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation. Joining her in writing the article were Susan C. Levine and Janellen Huttenlocher from the psychology department at the University of Chicago.