Situating space: using a discipline-focused lens to examine spatial thinking skills

Kinnari Atit, David H. Uttal, Mike Stieff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)
25 Downloads (Pure)


Spatial skills are an important component of success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. A majority of what we know about spatial skills today is a result of more than 100 years of research focused on understanding and identifying the kinds of skills that make up this skill set. Over the last two decades, the field has recognized that, unlike the spatial skills measured by psychometric tests developed by psychology researchers, the spatial problems faced by STEM experts vary widely and are multifaceted. Thus, many psychological researchers have embraced an interdisciplinary approach to studying spatial thinking with the aim of understanding the nature of this skill set as it occurs within STEM disciplines. In a parallel effort, discipline-based education researchers specializing in STEM domains have focused much of their research on understanding how to bolster students’ skills in completing domain-specific spatial tasks. In this paper, we discuss four lessons learned from these two programs of research to enhance the field’s understanding of spatial thinking in STEM domains. We demonstrate each contribution by aligning findings from research on three distinct STEM disciplines: structural geology, surgery, and organic chemistry. Lastly, we discuss the potential implications of these contributions to STEM education.

Original languageEnglish
Article number19
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalCognitive Research: Principles and Implications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes


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