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Northwestern Joins National Group to Study Spatial Learning

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October 23, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The National Science Foundation has awarded a $3.5 million grant to establish a new center that will bring together researchers from four leading universities in a collaborative effort to understand and solve scientific puzzles of spatial learning and to enhance related skills students will need to compete in today's technological workforce.

Northwestern University scholars are joining colleagues from Temple University, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania to form the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC). The center will bring together researchers who focus on spatial intelligence, an often-underappreciated academic area with great potential for enhancing the country's competitive edge.

“Spatial learning is in many ways as important as reading but has received comparatively little attention among researchers and educators,” said Northwestern's Dedre Gentner, co-principal investigator of SILC. “Studies show that spatial reasoning is important in predicting who goes on to achieve success in science, math and technology as well as in everyday planning,” added Gentner, professor of psychology and of education and director of the Cognitive Science Program.

The new center will pursue fundamental research in the area of spatial intelligence and its development, building on scholarship pioneered at Northwestern. Gentner, for example, shows that spatial language can enhance children's insight during spatial reasoning tasks. David Uttal, associate professor of psychology and of education, has studied the role of map learning in fostering children's spatial understanding. And CogSketch is an exciting new computational system developed by Ken Forbus, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Computer Science and professor of education. CogSketch allows students to sketch on a screen and receive feedback on their work. Usable on hand-held computers, CogSketch potentially could be used in classrooms to promote spatial learning.

Other Northwestern faculty members who are central to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center include Larry Hedges, the Board of Trustees professor of statistics and of education and social policy and the Institute for Policy Research, and Louis Gomez, professor of education and social policy, learning sciences and of electrical engineering and computer science.

Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center researchers will examine how to better understand spatial learning and how to develop related programs and technologies to transform educational practice for learners from preschool to college-age. Some of SILC's research activities will be carried out in collaboration with the Chicago public school system.

Spatial learning is becoming increasingly important to a technological society, as people work with data and manipulate images mentally in order to understand the workings of complex phenomena and systems. An understanding of spatial relationships provides the foundation for a wide range of reasoning and communication skills as varied as designing buildings, solving mathematical problems and forming mental abstractions.

“Spatial insight extends beyond domains that directly involve spatial relations,” Gentner added. “Spatial diagrams and graphs are commonly used to reason about abstract relationships in a range of disciplines, from economics to weather prediction -- and even just to navigate the Web.”

Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center members currently are recruiting children to participate in the studies of spatial learning and thinking. “The studies are fun, and parents can sign up for one visit or more, as they prefer,” Uttal said. (To sign up or receive more information, parents should call 847-467-3045 or visit kids.northwestern.edu.)

Although NSF has funded the center for the first two years at $3.5 million, the award calls for an additional three years of funding at approximately $4 million per year, making the potential total of the grant more than $15 million.

The Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center is one of three new Science of Learning Centers recently announced by NSF, bringing the total to seven nationwide. The other six NSF Science of Learning Centers are located at the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, University of California-San Diego and Gallaudet University.