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Spatial STEM+C: Developing Computational Thinking and Mathematical Skills in Children with Spatial Puzzles, Games, and Building Toys


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We tend to take spatial thinking for granted when we pack a car for an extended vacation or figure out instructions for putting a bookshelf together. Spatial thinking becomes more evident and challenging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, surgeons integrate their knowledge of anatomy and physiology with readings from X-rays and MRIs to pinpoint and repair physical ailments. Weather and climate scientists interpret complicated patterns of winds, temperatures, atmospheric pressures, and humidity provided by satellite data and statistical models. Computer programmers and data scientists visualize how to break problems into manageable chunks and debug errors in cyber systems and software.

Unfortunately, some students-particularly girls and, possibly, children from impoverished environments-tend to have lower spatial thinking abilities. Lower spatial thinking ability may cause them to struggle in courses students take in high school and college to move on to STEM occupations. Fortunately, spatial instruction in middle school, high school, and college has been shown to be effective in helping students succeed in gatekeeping STEM courses. The Spatial STEM+C project is exploring whether such training may be useful in the elementary grades. It is examining the impact that teaching with spatial puzzles, games, and building kits has on children's computational thinking abilities and mathematical performance in the K-5 grades. Lessons learned from this project will be used to develop a model for spatial instruction in elementary school and inform how pre-service and in-service teachers may be trained to integrate spatial instruction into their classroom practices.