Spatial Visualization: A one way ticket to success in STEM

By Max Watrous, Instructor & Curriculum Product Manager

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Spatial Visualization is a fancy term for the ability to picture, imagine and modify 3D objects in your head. While the definition is quite simple, the process of mapping objects in our brains is not. As anyone who has put together their own IKEA furniture can attest, spatial visualization can be quite challenging. However, developing the skill has much more benefit than being able to assemble inexpensive Swedish furniture. 

Spatial visualization has been shown to be the one of the strongest indicators of a juvenile’s future success in STEM fields. Since we live in a 3D world, anyone solving problems or developing solutions needs to use spatial visualization. The chemists and biologists that worked to develop the new Covid-19 vaccines had to first map the virus and protein receptors in 3D. It helps electrical engineers design multilayer printed circuits boards, astronomers track the orbit of distant galaxies, geologists map the erosion in different locations, physicists understand the atom, students understand calculus, and artists rig and model their own animations.

With all these benefits, why is spatial visualization not taught more often? Some of the research is relatively new, but the main problem is that most assume spatial visualization is an unchanging ability.  This is not true. Just like riding a bike, spatial visualization is a skill that can be taught, learned and practiced. There are a wide variety of tactics to use to increase this skill, but I’ll list three here: 

  1. Let your kids play with toys that involve building in 3D space. This can be as simple as wooden blocks or legos, or as complicated as assembling robots. Yes, even certain video games (like minecraft and fortnite) reinforce spatial visualization. However, make sure your kids focus on the building. It’s the process of putting pieces together to create something bigger that stimulates the parts of our brain necessary to build these skills.  
  2. Practice spatial visualization directly by taking a Spatial Visualization Quiz. An example question is shown below. You can also click here for a free online quiz. 
    B is the correct answer!
  3. Enroll your students in a computer aided design (CAD) course. CAD is one of the best tools that students can learn because it gets them to practice bringing their imagination into reality. In my course, Introduction to TinkerCAD, we design everything from fidget spinners to video game characters and more. We talk about how imagining 3D objects is a skill that requires patience and practice. Though not every student is on the same level at the start, it’s amazing to see students start thinking in 3D.  

While easy to overlook, spatial visualization is a powerful skill that has a wide range of benefits. In my own personal experience, it’s amazing to see students go from barely being able to navigate their way around CAD, to designing their own creations. If your kids have an interest in designing or creating, working on the skill can help them build and create in much more fun and imaginative ways. 

If you are interested in summer camps that will focus on developing spatial visualization skills, please check out 3D Printing and Computer Aided Design Summer Camp – with 3D Printed Project!

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Max Watrous

Instructor & Curriculum Product Manager

Max loves helping students get invested in projects, as he firmly believes that hands-on work is the best way to get kids excited about their education. He especially enjoys teaching mechanical design and IoT. He has a dual degree from CU Boulder in mechanical engineering and science education. He is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Stridetech Medical.

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