The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), investigates the area of spatial skills learning. One of the largest and most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in the area of spatial skills, where boys and men consistently outperform girls and women on average. Spatial skills are thought to be critically important for success in fields such as engineering, and many people believe that they are innate and, therefore, some believe that the gender difference in spatial skills explains why there are so few women in engineering, for example.
Research highlighted in the report, however, shows that spatial skills are not fixed and can improve dramatically in a short time with training. This picture shows a sample question on mental rotation, one example of spatial skills. Do you know the right answer? It is D.
Research conducted by Dr. Sheryl Sorby with first-year engineering students at Michigan Tech, shows that individuals’ spatial skills can improve dramatically in a short time with a simple training course. Dr. Sorby found that when college students who failed a spatial visualization test took a 10-week training course that met just 4 hours a week, their scores improved from an average of 52% before the course to 82% after taking the course. This is a much bigger improvement than would be expected from just taking the test a second time with no training and bigger than the improvement seen for students who took the test after taking a course in engineering graphics, for example.
Having good spatial skills can help to retain women in engineering and encourage girls to pursue their interest in science and math because we use spatial skills to interpret diagrams and drawings in math and science textbooks from as early as elementary school.
So what can be done to help children, especially girls, develop their spatial skills, which can increase their interest in studying math and science subjects? All kids should play with building toys—such as Legos or blocks—where they take things apart and put them together again. Drawing can help children develop spatial skills.
[Here are two building toy favorites that were not around when I was a kid: (1) Goldie Blox, engineering toys for girls; and (2) Magformers. My take on this: it does not matter if boys build forts for soldiers and girls build castles for princesses. The important thing is that they build! – JTS]
Note: much of this text is from the AAUW ppt describing highlights of the Why So Few? report.