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Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center

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Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC)  (Temple University)

Research Focus

The Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC) improves our understanding of spatial learning, supporting children and adults in acquiring the scientific, technical, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills required to effectively participate in an increasingly high-technology society and global economy.

We use spatial skills daily--for example, in packing a suitcase or the trunk of a car.  These skills are our basis for getting around, a trait we share with other species, and one that evolved long before we started using GPS devices.  Spatial reasoning--the ability to mentally visualize and manipulate 2-D and 3-D objects--is a great predictor of talent in STEM.

Yet, “these skills are not valued in our society or taught adequately in the educational system,” says Nora Newcombe, a principal investigator for the center.  “People will readily say such things as ‘I hate math,’ or ‘I can’t find my way when I’m lost,’ and think it’s cute, whereas they would be embarrassed to say ‘I can’t read.’

“People have a theory about this skill, that it’s innate at birth and you can’t develop it, and that’s really not true,” she adds. “It’s probably true that some people are born with a better ability to take in spatial information, but that doesn’t mean if you aren’t born with it, you can’t change.  The brain has a certain amount of plasticity.”

Newcombe and other center scientists hope to encourage classroom teaching that incorporates methods designed to spatialize information, such as using diagrams in science instruction. Towards that end, they’ve revised a widely used textbook, Everyday Mathematics, to incorporate more elements related to spatial awareness. They also developed sketching software for use in college geology and engineering classes.

The center’s researchers include individuals from cognitive science, psychology, computer science, education and neuroscience, as well as teachers in the Chicago Public Schools and practicing geoscientists and engineers who are interested in spatial thinking in their fields.

Research Outcomes

The center seeks knowledge that could be helpful to parents, teachers, curriculum developers and policymakers. Different studies have shown or suggested that:

  • even in the 1st and 2nd grades, children have spatial anxieties that can affect how well they do in science and math
  • learning to use a wide range of words related to shape and size may improve children's later spatial skills
  • the amount of time parents spend talking about numbers has a much bigger impact on how young children learn mathematics than was previously thought

Education & Outreach

SILC offers cross-disciplinary training opportunities that span the educational spectrum from high school students to junior scientists; conducts outreach to pre-service and in-service teachers in the form of conferences and summer workshops; interfaces with university teaching in the STEM disciplines; hosts scientific conferences and visiting scientists, and partners with children's and science museums.

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  • students working at table
Through teacher work circles and other activities, SILC helps teachers develop spatial learning and teaching skills.
Courtesy SILC