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Posts Tagged ‘Sheryl Sorby’

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.

Engineering professor Sheryl Sorby has produced striking findings on spatial skills and retention of female engineering students. She found that among the women in her studies who initially failed the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT-R) and took a spatial-visualization course, 77 percent were still enrolled in or had graduated from the school of engineering. In comparison, only 48 percent of the women who initially failed the test and did not take the course were still enrolled or had graduated from the school of engineering.

Much of Sorby’s analysis is based on nonrandom samples of students since, after the first year students opted to take the course rather than being randomly assigned. Nonetheless, Sorby’s findings were consistent and compelling enough to convince the dean at Michigan Technological University to require the spatial skills course for all students who fail the PSVT:R during orientation, starting in fall 2009. Sorby is working now on understanding the impact of the course alone on retention, separate from students’ motivation, since all students who fail the test are now required to take the course and are no longer self-selected.

Sorby believes that well-developed spatial skills can help retain women in engineering and help attract more girls to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She sees well-developed spatial skills as important for creating confidence in one’s ability to succeed in math and science courses and ultimately in a STEM career, because spatial skills are needed to interpret diagrams and drawings in math and science textbooks as early as elementary school.

In a pilot study, Sorby found that middle school girls who took a spatial-visualization course took more advanced-level math and science courses in high school than did girls who did not take the course. Sorby recommends that spatial skills training happen by middle school or earlier to make a difference in girls’ choices.

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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.

In one of their first studies, engineering professor Sheryl Sorby and mathematics educator Beverly Baartmans administered the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) along with a background questionnaire to first-year Michigan Technological University engineering students. The results showed that previous experience in design-related courses such as drafting, mechanical drawing, and art as well as childhood play with construction toys such as Legos, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets predicted good performance on the test. Another factor that predicted success was being a man. Women were more than three times as likely as their male peers to fail the test — 39 percent of the women failed compared with 12 percent of the men.

 

Sorby then selected a random sample of students who failed the PSVT:R to participate in a pilot offering of a spatial-visualization course she and Baartmans had developed with funding from the National Science Foundation. For 10 weeks, these students took a course that included two hours of lecture and a two-hour computer lab each week. At the end of the course, students took the test again. The results were remarkable. Students’ test scores — both women’s and men’s — improved from an average score of 52 percent before taking the class to 82 percent after taking it.

 

Sorby and her colleagues continue to offer the spatial-visualization course to engineering freshmen who fail the PSVT:R. Students’ test scores consistently increase by 20 to 32 percentage points after taking the course, even after it was condensed into a one-credit class that meets for a total of only 28 hours.

 

Other universities are now offering the course, and the National Science Foundation has funded the Women in Engineering ProActive Network to make the course available to students at 30 additional universities by 2014. In addition, any individual interested in improving her or his spatial skills on her or his own can purchase a workbook that Sorby and her colleagues created.

 

I find it empowering to know that something like spatial-visualization skills, which are often considered to be innate, can actually be learned with not too much effort.

 

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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?

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