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


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.

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