The Importance of Spatial Skills

September 27, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

The topic for “AAUW week” this month is spatial visualization skills.

One of the most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in the area of spatial skills, specifically on measures of mental rotation, where researchers consistently find that men outscore women by a medium-to-large margin.

While no definitive evidence proves that strong spatial abilities are required for achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, many people, including science and engineering professors, view them as important for success in fields like engineering and classes like organic chemistry. The National Academy of Sciences states that “spatial thinking is at the heart of many great discoveries in science, that it underpins many of the activities of the modern workforce, and that it pervades the everyday activities of modern life.”

Sheryl Sorby, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering mechanics at Michigan Technological University, has studied the role of spatial-skills training in the retention of female students in engineering since the early 1990s. She finds that individuals can dramatically improve their 3-D spatial visualization skills within a short time with training and that female engineering students with poorly developed spatial skills who receive spatial-visualization training are more likely to stay in engineering than their peers who do not receive training.

For those of you who are scientists or engineers, do you use spatial skills in your work? Do you think well-developed spatial skills are important for scientists and engineers?

By:   |   September 27, 2011


  1. […] pattern blocks are not just beautiful and colorful — they also teach kids important spatial awareness skills that will help them grasp math concepts more easily in the future. Boys are encouraged to learn […]

  2. Christianne Corbett says:

    Advocatepat, I’m glad you asked about training! I included this link in a later post to a workbook created by Sheryl Sorby that you can buy and work through to improve your spatial skills.

    And Kathleen, I agree with you about quilting. Sewing too. These are activities that really hone your spatial skills. I remember when I worked as a mechanical design engineer, my boss said that she stopped sewing once she started designing spacecraft components because she found that both activities used the very same skills.


  3. advocatepat says:

    I can empathize with Annabel, as I did very poorly in Solid Geometry as a high school student, but otherwise was top of my class. I have difficulty in judging depth, estimating distances. What types of training in spatial skills are readily available? Any suggestions for resources?

  4. Annabel Girard says:

    I have very bad spatial skills — on test where you had to rotate objects or count the blocks accounting for those you couldn’t see — I just skipped those. I can’t turn a dress inside out and “know” which is the front or back. Those skills are important — especially in such science fields as chemistry where being able to rotate molecular configurations in your head is important.

  5. Kathleen Kelm says:

    Go to a quilt festival. Try on the hypothesis that women have poor spatial skills. The evidence is persuasive that women have astonishing abilities. I will confess that most of them have taken classes in quilting. The training studied by Sorby above probably has a parallel in the quilting world. But women feel it is safe to excel manipulating shapes with the soft textiles. The quilting, the thread embossing process, puts the third dimension onto flat quilt tops.

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