Dr. Beck and Dr. Lucas awarded NSF grant
The National Science Foundation has awarded a 4-year, $1,076,515 grant to professors Dr. Melissa Beck and Dr. Heather Lucas for their project titled "Enhancing STEM Success: A Multi-modal Investigating of Spatial Reasoning and Training in Undergraduate Education." Despite the growing demand for STEM professionals, many students face challenges in completing STEM degree programs due to difficulties in mastering the content. One crucial predictor of success in STEM disciplines is spatial reasoning ability, which involves mentally manipulating and representing objects in space. However, STEM courses often neglect the purposeful development of spatial reasoning skills, and limited knowledge exists on effective training methods. Dr. Beck and Dr. Lucas' project aims to address this gap by: 1) identifying neural and cognitive processes associated with successful mental rotation, a fundamental aspect of spatial reasoning; 2) assessing the responsiveness of these processes to training; and 3) measuring the transfer of training effects to real-world STEM problems, specifically focusing on introductory chemistry.
To develop effective cognitive training protocols, a comprehensive understanding of the cognitive factors supporting optimal performance is necessary. This project involves a large-scale cross-sectional study utilizing eye movement tracking, brain activity measurement, and response time analysis during mental rotation tasks. Multivariate analysis techniques will identify latent variables that explain performance variability. Additionally, a validated randomized controlled training protocol, including an active control group, will monitor changes in measures as mental rotation performance improves through training. Comparing longitudinal training effects to performance determinants observed in the cross-sectional study will identify the most responsive neural and cognitive processes for targeted interventions. Moreover, the project will examine the extent of transferability of training-induced improvements to real-world STEM spatial reasoning tasks, such as molecular symmetry determination. By developing guidelines for effective mental rotation skill development, this research has the potential to increase success, retention, and diversity in STEM disciplines, thereby enhancing the quality and availability of the US STEM workforce.