A young girl plays with blocks.
Playing often with wooden blocks during childhood is one of the life experiences associated with higher spatial skills as an undergraduate student, a new study found. Credit: FatCamera/E+/Getty Images

Undergraduate students in an average geology class have a wide range of spatial skills, according to a new study that tested the abilities of hundreds of students. The researchers found that the students’ scores in tests of those skills correlated with certain life experiences, including types of play as children.

Because women are underrepresented in the geosciences workforce, the researchers paid close attention to gender disparity in spatial skills. They found that one specific life experience removed the difference in test scores between male and female students: frequent playing with construction-based toys. This finding illustrates that spatial reasoning differences between males and females come from experiences rather than biology, the authors argue in a recently published paper about their new work.

“We’re trying to see how we can level the playing field to give everyone the same chance and really make sure there are no structural barriers [against] participating in geosciences,” said Anne Gold, the education and outreach director at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo., and lead author of the new study.

Gold and her colleagues reported their results in Geosphere in February.

Establishing the Baseline

The first step to discovering structural barriers in university-level geoscience education, Gold explained, is determining the range of spatial ability in early undergraduate students.

Spatial reasoning is the ability to mentally manipulate visual images: rotating objects in one’s mind, for example. Researchers have established that having high spatial ability is a key skill for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines and generally a predictor of success in STEM careers, according to Gold. For example, chemists analyze the three-dimensional shapes of molecules and how they interact physically.

The first step to discovering structural barriers in university-level geoscience education, Gold explained, is determining the range of spatial ability in early undergraduate students. To assess that range, the researchers gave timed tests to 277 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory geology course at a U.S. university with a student population of more than 30,000. The tests covered three different spatial skills related to the ways in which parts of an object fit together, including the mental rotation of a three-dimensional structure from one angle to another. Because many students take this course to fulfill their science requirements, the studied group has a broad mixture of STEM and non-STEM majors.

The researchers also collected data on the tested students: demographic information such as gender, academic background such as past coursework and declared major, and play experiences. After students took the tests, they completed a survey where they reported their childhood play experiences with video games, construction-based toys, and sports. The researchers chose these categories on the basis of past studies connecting them with spatial thinking training. They considered adding other activities to the survey, including craftwork like sewing, but they struggled to develop quantifiable questions around these strongly gender biased skills, explained Gold.

Gender Differences

The resulting test scores varied from 6% to 75% correct. “It’s just an enormous range,” said Gold. She noted that such a wide range in one of the core skills for STEM fields makes it difficult for instructors to teach and for students to learn. A split between males and females was also obvious in the scores, especially in the mental rotation test.

Students who reported playing frequently as children with construction-based toys, such as blocks and connectors, had higher spatial thinking scores.

However, unlike past studies, this new research aimed to determine whether life experiences that may have trained test subjects’ spatial reasoning could explain the scores’ distribution. Using regression modeling to look at the possible correlations, Gold and her colleagues found that they were able to explain nearly a quarter of the variability in the scores, which Gold noted is significant in the social sciences.

The modeling showed, unsurprisingly, that students who reported playing frequently as children with construction-based toys, such as blocks and connectors, had higher spatial thinking scores. In addition, students who self-reported playing action, construction, or sports video games in childhood scored higher on the tests. But a closer look at which traits correlated the most strongly with spatial proficiency showed that it was frequent playing with construction-based toys not gender that drove high performance.

Bigger Picture

The new findings don’t conclusively rule out gender as a factor in spatial ability. Julie Libarkin, head of the Geocognition Research Laboratory at Michigan State University in East Lansing who edited the submitted manuscript before publication, praised the new study as an example of research others should strive for. However, she said, the findings remain nuanced, and she would like to see the research taken further. “It’s not clear that the difference in spatial skill is the result of playing with construction-based toys or if playing with construction-based toys is the result of having certain spatial skills,” she says. “It’s the chicken or egg question.”

Two girls lie on their stomachs on the floor, holding video game controllers and looking up.
Researchers found that students with higher spatial skills self-reported that they preferred playing video games in the action, construction, and sports categories. Credit: scottdunlap/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

With studies like this one, “we’re getting to a place…in geosciences education research where we can start to ask more fundamental questions that drive at why and how people are successful in STEM fields and in geosciences in particular,” said Eric Riggs, a geology and geophysics professor at Texas A&M University in College Station who was not involved with this spatial skills study.

However, the work also raised additional questions for him. “I’m always interested to see if the same thing holds true in other places around the world or around the country at least,” he said. “Is this just a general human phenomenon, or are we just seeing a small snapshot through a single university?”

Trainable Spatial Skills

Gold acknowledged the limitations in the study and agreed that the general population could display even larger differences in spatial reasoning. She said that testing a more general population could provide more opportunities to increase the pool of future geoscientists.

In the meantime, Gold said she hopes parents and especially K–12 educators are inspired by these research results. “Maybe [we should be] more strategic than we have been in the past in supporting spatial training at all different levels of our life, starting at play age,” she said.

“Anyone can become a geoscientist.”

Undergraduate students with low spatial skills shouldn’t feel discouraged about entering STEM fields. The baseline results are informing Gold and her colleagues on how to design training to increase those skills.

Libarkin agreed, saying that any group of scientists has a range of abilities and even if one skill level is low, a scientist can learn workarounds. “Anyone can become a geoscientist,” she said.

—Laura G. Shields (email: lgshields@gmail.com@LauraGShields), Science Communication Program Graduate Student, University of California, Santa Cruz


Shields, L. G. (2018), Playing their way into the geosciences, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO096665. Published on 16 April 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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