Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering Education

Committee Chair(s)

Ning Fang


Ning Fang


Wade H. Goodridge


Angela Minichiello


Edward M. Reeve


Idalis Villanueva


Spatial skills are generally referred to as an individual’s skill to mentally rotate a 2 or 3 dimensional (2-D or 3-D) object. Such an object can be physical in nature and can be held by the hand, or the object could exist virtually on a computer screen. Spatial skills improve with training, and the importance of improving spatial skills in students has fostered a lot of research over the years. This is primarily because spatial skills can have a direct positive impact on a person’s performance in science and engineering fields or even general daily life activities. Such activities could include reading maps, understanding puzzles, or simply decorating the interior rooms of one’s house. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has identified spatial skills as one of the three primary factors (quantitative, verbal, and spatial) used to train potential scientists and engineers for the future. However, studies have also reflected that student rarely get the chance to improve their spatial skills in an engineering classroom through direct training. This is mainly because spatial skills are not identified as a course material, and consequently, are not trained or tested on students. Apart from computer graphic and computer aided design courses, few engineering courses provide means to teach students how to develop their spatial skills.

In this dissertation research, a new training technology has been developed that can be incorporated in any learning environment to improve undergraduate engineering students’ spatial skills. This includes, but is not limited to classrooms, libraries, mobile platforms, such as laptops (as long as internet is provided), and students’ homes. Participants for this training are a group of sophomore students from the College of Engineering at Utah State University. For the training, a computer software was developed to mimic rotations and motions of real-world objects on a computer screen. The objects can be connected to the computer, and any of their movements are instantaneously displayed virtually on the screen. The object on the screen is identified as the virtual object, whereas the physical version connected to the computer is identified as the physical object. In total, 10 different objects were chosen in this study to help improve students’ spatial skills. The shape of the objects used to train the students were all derived from real-world engineering applications. These objects used for spatial skills training are typically referred to as manipulatives. Hence, due to the combination of the virtual and physical mode used to train, the training program is called Virtual and Physical Manipulative (VPM) technology. Combining physical and virtual manipulatives provides multiple forms of information to the student while they are training. Physical manipulatives can provide sense of touch or physical feeling of the objects while they are held, whereas the virtual part helps to provide visual information through watching.

The students were split into two groups, one being the intervention group and the other being the control group. The intervention group was trained using VPM technology for a total of five weeks, while no training was given to the control group for the same duration. Suitable assessments were taken before and after the five-week duration. The difference in the tests taken before and after showed that the intervention groups’ rotational spatial ability improved significantly after they were trained with VPM technology. In comparison, the control group’s improvement was negligible. This result shows that VPM was effective at training engineering students, significantly enhancing their spatial skills. In addition, when evaluating the objects used for training, the shapes that were asymmetric were more difficult to mentally rotate compared to symmetric shapes. Finally, from the assessment results of the intervention group, it was confirmed that VPM technology was effective at helping students solve 70% of the spatial questions in their assessment phase after the training. These results are significant for the progress of spatial research in engineering education, as it not only provides a novel means to train spatial skills in students but also confirms the importance of using two forms of manipulatives (virtual and physical) at the same time during training.

Available for download on Saturday, May 01, 2027