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Studies highlight benefit of spatial visualization app in bridging critical STEM education gap

A student uses the Spatial Vis app on a tablet. Photos by David Baillot/UC San Diego.

August 30, 2021--Software developed by engineering professors at UC San Diego has improved spatial visualization—a critical skill in STEM careers—in students in high school and college courses, both in person and remotely. 

Two publications presented at the July 2021 American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference highlighted the Spatial Vis app’s success in the remote learning environment necessitated by COVID-19, and among high school students. 

Spatial visualization, the ability to think in three dimensions, is critical in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers, from Computer-Aided-Design in engineering to using ultrasound for medical procedures. As this New York Times piece points out, this concept is often missing from K-16 curricula and as a result, the skill is underdeveloped in many students. To address this issue, two engineering faculty at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego developed the Spatial Vis software to teach students how to sketch 2D projections and 3D shapes. The touchscreen app provides automatic grading and personalized feedback. The immediate feedback creates much higher student engagement than the traditional approach of sketching on paper and waiting days for a grade.

The app is produced by eGrove Education Inc., which was co-founded by Nathan Delson, a UC San Diego mechanical engineering teaching professor, and Lelli Van Den Einde, a fellow UC San Diego structural engineering teaching professor. 

At the ASEE conference, Van Den Einde and Delson presented findings that detail the success of the app in improving students’ spatial visualization skills. They measure this by having the students take a standardized spatial visualization test before using the Spatial Vis app, and then again after using the app. Students whose pre-test score is 70% or below are categorized as “at-risk” for low graduation rates in future STEM programs. 

In their study of two high school classes, results showed that students in this at-risk group improved their test score by 15.6% after using the Spatial Vis app. Even more significant is that 60% of all of the low-performing students moved out of the at-risk category on their post-test scores, making them more likely to persist in STEM careers. Not only did their skills improve, but so did their confidence; 42% of students reported their spatial visualization skills were “very good” or “good” before using the app, while 90% of the high school students said they felt their skills were “very good” or “good” after using the app. 

The second paper, on the Suitability of Spatial Visualization Training for Remote Learning,  compared in-person use of the Spatial Vis app before COVID-19 with the experience using it during remote learning due to the pandemic, in freshman engineering graphics courses at two universities. Among college students, there was a correlation between the measured student persistence and gains in spatial visualization ability. These gains occurred both before and during COVID, though the gains were slightly less significant during COVID.

In one course, using Spatial Vis improved student scores especially among students who were deemed at-risk based on their spatial visualization standardized test before taking the course.  In the first class, at-risk students’ test scores improved 18.9% in 2019 and 11.3% in 2020. Of those low performing students students, 48.8% in 2019 and 35.7% in 2020 moved out of the at-risk category, making them more likely to persist in STEM careers.The second class had at-risk score improvements of 22.3% in 2019 and 22.2% in 2020 with 78.4% (2019) and 69.2% (2020) of these initially low-performing students moving out of the at-risk category on their post-test scores.

While the cause of the slight decrease in score improvement during 2020 is unknown, the researchers speculate it could be attributed to overall lower engagement due to the challenging environment as courses transitioned to emergency remote instruction at the start of the pandemic. Still, the app led to marked improvements in students’ spatial visualization skills, and teachers noticed the benefits of the teaching tool, too. 

“During COVID, we had high school and middle school teachers reaching out to us to provide experiences that students could engage with remotely,” said Van Den Einde. “Now that classes are returning to in-person education the teachers are interested in continuing to use Spatial Vis since they saw how its use increased persistence and self-regulated learning among their students.”

A student and a teaching assistant use the Spatial Vis app in class.

Sketching has a long history in education, and is used for communication and creativity in many STEM fields. The physical act of freehand sketching has been shown to increase spatial visualization skills, and its benefits are supported by the NSF-funded Engage Engineering initiative. Improvement of these skills has significantly increased retention in STEM for women and other underrepresented minorities. These prior studies were based on sketching on paper, which can be laborious to grade and do not provide real time feedback to the student. Spatial Vis’ digital platform, with automatic grading and personalized feedback, aims to change that.

In 2019, this UC San Diego spinoff received a $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the app. Van Den Einde and Delson co-founded eGrove Education, Inc. to commercialize the Spatial Vis software and make it available to educational institutions worldwide.


To learn more about Spatial Vis please visit www.egrove.education

Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering
858-534-8374
khconnor@eng.ucsd.edu