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Enhancing spatial ability to help close the gender gap in STEM

Bangor University to partner in Horizon 2020 funding worth €4m

Bangor University is to contribute expertise to a new Europe-wide project to improve children’s spatial abilities, with the aim to help close the gender gap in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Pupils with high levels of spatial ability are much more likely to succeed in STEM subjects, enjoy doing them and select them for further education and careers compared to those with low spatial ability.

The multi-agency project, Spatially Enhanced Learning Linked to STEM (SellSTEM), was awarded €4.12M in funding from the Marie Skłodowska Curie Innovative Training Network under Horizon 2020, an EU 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness. It is led by Technological University Dublin.

The large gender gap in spatial ability in favour of males means that women are over-represented in the low spatial ability group and more disadvantaged in STEM learning. Over four years SellSTEM will recruit and train 15 PhD students to develop innovative and practical approaches to improve spatial ability among young people in Europe, so they are better prepared for learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Speaking about the project, Dr Gavin Duffy, TU Dublin, said:

"SellSTEM will develop methods to foster spatial ability among children through online learning, tactile activities, maker-space workshop, project-based learning, and integrated with the STEM curriculum. They will work with teachers and teacher educators to identify barriers and enablers to developing spatial ability so they can provide sustainable classroom solutions to raise the spatial ability of children above existing levels. SellSTEM brings fresh thinking to promoting STEM education and careers, including addressing the gender gap in STEM enrolment, thereby enabling Europe to achieve its agenda for growth and jobs."

Thora Tenbrink, a Professor of Linguistics at the School of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics is the named scientist-in-charge for the consortium at Bangor University.

She explains:

"Ours will be the first large scale study in Europe to determine the impact of spatial ability on education and career choice and how this varies by age, gender and region. At Bangor University, we will study the role of spatial ability in mental representations of STEM tasks, using language analysis to investigate the specific ways in which spatial ability affects STEM task success.

“For example, children with low spatial abilities may struggle to understand the concept of volume. The way they talk about STEM learning tasks involving volume will reflect what exactly these difficulties are and what is being misunderstood. Such insights inform the design of classroom activities to help children overcome these difficulties."

The other consortium members are Technische Universiteit Delft, Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskapelige Universitet – NTNU, Latvijas Universitāte, Universiteit Leiden, Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg – PLUS, Universität Regensburg, Universität Koblenz-Landau and Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan - KTH, Microsoft Ireland Operations, Stichting VHTO, SAP Service and Support Centre, Ionad Oideachais Mhuineacháin, De Galan School Voor Training, Science Hub TU Delft, Marino Institue of Technology and Stichting Waag Society.

Publication date: 18 June 2020