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Exploring a Spatial Thinking Curriculum for Higher Education
Diana S. Sinton, Director of Spatial Curriculum and Research
University of Redlands, California
In mid-December, 2012, about 45 people gathered in Santa Barbara, California, to talk about spatial thinking in higher education. This 2-day specialist meeting was conceived of and organized by SILC and the Center for Spatial Studies (spatial@ucsb) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Spatial@ucsb is dedicated to promoting campus-wide spatially related events, research, and teaching for all disciplines that share interest in the importance of spatial thinking in science and in artistic endeavors, the development of spatial analytic tools, and the importance of place in society. The meeting was also supported by Esri, the world’s largest GIS software company.
The call for participation in the meeting included the following statement of purpose.
There is now convincing evidence that spatial abilities are related to both success and participation in STEM disciplines. More generally, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of spatiality as a unifier of academic disciplines, including the social sciences, arts, and humanities, sometimes referred to as a “spatial turn.” But it is also widely acknowledged that spatial thinking is not fostered in our educational system and that current practice depends more on selection of the most able students for spatially demanding disciplines than on fostering the spatial intelligence of all students….An overarching goal [of this meeting] will be to prioritize a research agenda to evaluate current approaches to spatial education, fill gaps in our knowledge, and consider how a curriculum in spatial thinking can best be implemented at the college level.
The meeting featured plenary presentations by experts on the challenges of spatial thinking in different disciplines, cognitive analyses of spatial thinking processes, and current best practices in educating spatial thinking. In smaller breakout sessions, disciplinary experts, cognitive scientists, and college administrators worked together to identify the current state of our understanding of spatial thinking, gaps in our knowledge, and priorities for both research and practice in educating spatial thinkers at the college level. The majority of participants were psychologists, geographers, and geographic information scientists, together with a few learning scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars.
Despite the variety of disciplinary backgrounds, participants largely supported the idea that spatial thinking approaches would enhance and enrich learning experiences across higher education. However, several challenges inhibit the implementation of such an ambitious goal, including the cross disciplinary nature of spatial thinking, the increasing constraints on public funding for education, an expanding emphasis on online courses, and the competition with other, better-known approaches to improving the college curriculum, such as through critical thinking or quantitative reasoning initiatives.
In order to make the case for space, the group recognized four sets of future needs: 1) basic research, even on what is meant by spatial thinking; 2) developing methods for teaching spatial thinking; 3) research on teaching spatial thinking, including assessments of what is learned from programs that aim to teach spatial thinking; 4) and documenting and demonstrating where and how spatial thinking prepares students for academic success, allows them to better compete in the job market and global economy, and, perhaps most important but more difficult to measure, how “spatial habits of mind” are developed.
Over the course of the meeting, it became clear that we were much better at identifying questions and obstacles than answers and simple paths forward. However, building community around a series of common goals makes such multi-disciplinary, face-to-face meetings highly valuable. We learned about the ways in which some institutions are linking spatial thinking with their General Education requirements or organizing curricular “minors” that include clusters of spatially-related content. We revisited the ways in which computer technologies support or hinder spatial learning, recognizing that the emerging preponderance of online GIS, for example, changes the playing field. We imagined the idea of a spatial thinking MOOC (massive open online course), not knowing at the time that Penn State University was only weeks away from announcing one on Maps and the Geospatial Revolution. Which would have given us a chance to discuss why and how a spatial thinking MOOC might differ!