Nov. 16, 2006
Vol. 26 No. 5

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    Center will add to knowledge base of spatial learning studies

    By William Harms
    News Office

    University scholars are joining colleagues from other institutions to launch the National Science Foundation-funded Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center to be based at Temple University. The overarching goal of the center is to understand spatial learning and to use that knowledge to develop programs and technologies that will transform educational practice and support the capability of children and adolescents to develop the skills required to compete in a global economy.

    Susan Levine, Professor in Psychology, will serve as Co-Principal Investigator and will be joined by Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor in Psychology and the College, and Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Bearsdley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and the College.

    The NSF has given the center an initial one-year grant of $3.5 million. The center may also apply for an additional $4 million per year for the following three years. The center will pursue fundamental research in the area of spatial intelligence and build on scholarship pioneered at the University, Levine said. Levine and Huttenlocher, for instance, established that boys have spatial intelligence advantages as early as age 4 1/2. The researchers also will build on Goldin-Meadow’s earlier work on gesturing by studying Chicago Public Schools students’ gestures and whether they aid learning about spatial relationships, Levine said.

    The scholars will examine such basic questions as how to measure spatial learning. Spatial learning is becoming increasingly important to a technological society, as people work with data and manipulate images mentally in order to understand the workings of tools and instruments. Spatial intelligence allows people to work with information about objects and their locations and thus be able to perform technical work, such as tool making. It also provides the foundation for a wide range of reasoning and communication skills as varied as designing buildings, solving mathematical problems and forming mental abstractions.

    To be able to develop new ways of teaching spatial skills, the researchers will observe how Chicago Public Schools teachers currently foster these skills. The spatial intelligence center team will look at how teachers help students build a vocabulary to express spatial ideas and how students are taught about spatial relationships in mathematics, science and geography courses.

    “There is no class labeled spatial learning, but we want to see what we can do to enhance instruction of spatial intelligence by integrating it into a number of subjects students already study,” Levine said.

    The group also will look at how students pick up spatial ideas informally, through games, for example. They also will examine the influence of social-economic status on the acquisition of spatial skills.

    The other Co-Principal Investigator is Dedre Gentner, professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Scholars there are developing a handheld computer hardware tool that could potentially be used to promote spatial learning. The device allows students to sketch on a screen and receive feedback on how they visualize spatial relationships.

    Nora Newcombe, principal investigator in the center, is a professor of psychology at Temple University. A faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania also is a researcher with the center, which includes scholars who study cognitive science, psychology, computer science, education and neuroscience.

    Other members of the investigative team are geoscientists and engineers with a particular interest in spatial intelligence.