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Spatial Skills and the Tipsy Bottle Task

tippedbottle.jpg

Here's today's quiz item for readers: In the illustration at right, draw a line to show that the bottle is half full. Easy, right?

Apparently, not for everyone. Pennsylvania State University researcher Lynn Liben has posed this question to hundreds of adults and children and found that surprisingly high percentages of them get it wrong. Instead of drawing a line parallel to the horizon—that's the right answer, in case you're spatially challenged—test-takers might draw slanted lines in different directions. And females are more likely than males to answer incorrectly, or to be unsure of their answers.

The problem, Liben says, is that spatial skills like this one are important for a wide range of scientific endeavors.

To test her theory, Liben and Kim Kastens, a Columbia University marine geologist, tried out these sorts of spatial-skills questions on more than 600 college students, separating them into groups based on how well they did. Then the researchers gave the students, who were all studying geology, a "strike and dip" task.

Typically the sort of thing that geology students do on their first field trip, the task entailed mapping a rock outcropping and drawing the "strike" line, the horizontal line in the surface of the rock. Students were also asked to map the location of a dowel rod in the ground.

Sure enough, the students who had trouble with the tipping-bottle question also struggled with the geology task.

"If they're having trouble then, they are likely to have trouble later on or just drop the course," Liben said. "I would argue that you could make the same analysis for chemistry and physics."

Liben, who has been studying these issues with support from the National Science Foundation, believes schools can help students avoid such difficulties by teaching spatial skills to children in the early grades.

"These are basic concepts and skills that people typically think develop naturally, but they don't for everyone," she says. "And, for many years in the education community, spatial skills have been ignored."

To read more about the importance of teaching spatial skills, check out this 2006 book, called Learning to Think Spatially. It's published by the National Academies, the Congressionally chartered organization that advises the federal government on science.

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