Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Direct Contact Learning - Spatial Reasoning & Engineers

We recently came across a quote from an eminent Scottish engineer, who insisted on the importance of direct hand contact to ground the knowledge of budding engineers. Said James Nasmyth "the eyes and fingers - the bare fingers - are the two principle trustworthy inlets to trustworthy knowledge in all the materials and operations which the engineer has to deal with....Hence I have no faith in young engineers who are addicted to wearing gloves. Gloves, especially kid gloves, are the perfect non-conductors of technical knowledge". Well I wonder what he might of thought about spatial learning through computer simulation?

The National Research Council just came out with their call for Spatial Literacy. They call on schools to "take an approach similar to the movement to teach writing " across the curriculum"--that is, to integrate it into instruction in all appropriate content areas", although in the same breath they confess that there are "neither content standards nor valid and reliable assessments dedicated solely to spatial thinking." Hmmm.

There are many aspects to spatial learning, but the current state of affairs seems to fall a lot to chance. Engineers and spatial gifts tend to run in families, so fortunately, what one doesn't get at school, one may get at home. Even formal assessments of Spatial abilities (like at Johns Hopkins) are 2D affairs (perspective figures on computer) rather than real materials placed on a table.

Insights from neuroscience supports real differences between hands-on and virtual learning about mechanical processes and materials. When we have things in hand, we build our knowledge about materials, 3D spatial relationships (these are located in different parts of the brain), and forces. Virtual learning about mechanical processes is helpful for directing students toward salient points (see Teaching tip post below), but, it is overly weighted toward the visual. And haptic and kinesthetic learning is difficult to capture by either pictures or words (the main language of K-12 education). In the picture below, much more activation of motor imagery areas is seen when looking at pictures of tools vs. non-tools. Why is this? The most likely reason is that we build more spatial imagery by hands on experience with the tools.

For those of you who know of budding engineers, check out Engineering and the Mind's Eye. The training of outstanding mechanical engineers is very different from conventional school. We found it interesting that the analogical thinking that often led to design insights were procedural or sensory-motor-related rather than visual, mathematical, or verbal. One example, "Some said it was like trying to keep a bucket with a hole in the bottom full without splashing with an open-ended garden hose turned on full blast. Someone else said that if you kink the hose you can regulate the flow pretty well by feel...then I remembered that I had once used a filled bucket to hold the kink in a hose to keep it from spraying until I oculd go back and shut off the valve. The bucket had to be full or it wouldn't hold the kink..." It turned out this insight led to a very different idea for an oil well.

Geometric and Material Features and fMRI
Tools, Non-Tools, and fMRI
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Teaching Tip: Student Predictions


  1. Hi Guys,

    Just to let you know, your link to Amazon is broken.