Alice M. Agogino
Director, Synthesis Coalition
3112 Etcheverry Hall
University of California at Berkeley, CA 94720
Science & Mathematics Education Group
4533 Tolman Hall
University of California at Berkeley, CA 94720
This paper describes the use of integrative multimedia courseware designed to
scaffold student learning and accommodate learning style differences. Synthesis
courseware aimed at improving the retention of under-represented engineers has
been further designed to work effectively in a range of educational settings,
including classroom, high-tech small study groups and self-paced individualized
learning. As an example, this paper focuses on the Spatial Reasoning project
aimed at improving the retention of female engineering students through
scaffolding students in spatial reasoning. The courseware described in this
paper can be found on the NEEDS (National Engineering Delivery System;
http://needs.org/) database of engineering courseware.
The Synthesis Coalition (California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo,
Cornell, Hampton, Iowa State, Southern, Stanford, Tuskegee, and University of
California at Berkeley) is part of a national effort to improve undergraduate
engineering education and improve the retention of under-represented engineers.
Both of these goals are being achieved through the use of educational
multimedia in a way that takes advantage of the diversity of learning styles of
our undergraduate students. Our courseware is integrated with classroom and
laboratory techniques that build on the Kolb model  of experiential
learning, making use of case studies of engineering design , hands-on
activities , experimentation and simulation along with engineering
Synthesis has developed a number of strategies for improving the retention of
under-represented engineers, such as providing on-line role modes on the World
Wide Web, courseware on the role of women and African-Americans in the history
of technology, tutorial courseware for self-paced learning, and undergraduate
research experiences. In a study whose results are now justifying our choice of
curricular synthesis as our conceptual and pedagogical basis, Seymour and
Hewitt [4 : 57] concluded that, "Criticism of faculty pedagogy contributed to
1/3 of all switching decisions, and was the third most commonly-mentioned
factor in such decisions." Synthesis curricula and pedagogical techniques
address many of the problems historically associated with poor retention in
engineering (Table 1).
Table 1: Synthesis approach to retention.
Perhaps the most successful are our programs aimed at "gateway" courses where
the attrition rate has historically been the highest. High-technology learning
centers  bring courseware and small study groups together to create
nurturing support and learning environments for under-represented engineers
taking these gateway courses. Much of this work in small study groups is based
on early work by Uri Treisman  in which participating minority students
earned on the average one letter grade higher in their math and science courses
than nonparticipating minority students and they exceeded the average grades
achieved by white students in the same courses. The addition of instructional
software to this approach allows even more flexibility in tailoring tutorial
sessions to each individual student's needs. An example of this approach,
integrating the small study group concept with courseware geared for learning
style differences, applied to freshman/ sophomore students is described in the
rest of this paper.
In many engineering disciplines spatial reasoning and visualization contribute
to a student's success in introductory design classes. Unfortunately, the
spatial skills and experiences of incoming engineering students are quire
varied with some indications of gender differences . In Fall 1991, in a
large freshman/sophomore design class UC Berkeley 25% of the female students
received a grade of D or F for the semester - - a much higher failure rate than
in past semesters. As this was the first semester that the class had used CAD
(computer-aided design) rather than hand drafting, we suspected that gender
differences in spatial skills and computer experience might be the cause of the
high failure rate for the female students. A study of learning style
differences was initiated with faculty from both the College of engineering and
the School of Education at UC Berkeley . We were joined by collaborating
faculty at other schools in the Synthesis Coalition. This results of the study
led to the design of spatial reasoning instruction including hands-on
activities, innovative computer courseware, and problem-solving assessments.
Pre-and post-tests were given to over 500 students. Student responses to small
study Saturday workshops illustrate the nature of the exposure and provide
representative student feedback. A summary of a more rigorous statistical
analysis of pre- and post-testing during one semester of the project is
provided in the Conclusions section of this paper.
During the Spring of 1994, Professor Alice Agogino (Mechanical Engineering,
U.C. Berkeley) invited her E28 students to attend a special workshop that she
organized to help students improve their spatial reasoning skills. Thirteen
students attended, of which eleven were female and two were male. Attendance
was voluntary and no emphasis was placed on encouraging female students to
attend. Nevertheless, almost all of the female students in the class attended,
indicating a gender-related lack of confidence in spatial reasoning. The
workshop lasted approximately two hours with the following schedule:
The presentation was
an introductory talk given by Professor Agogino, which explained the purpose
and scope of the workshop, as well as some of the theory involved. In the hand
drawings exercise the students had to draw the different views (front, top,
side, orthogonal) of various objects. Blockstacking and Display Object are
software programs designed by Synthesis. The lego block exercises provided
concrete examples of shapes that are covered in the Blockstacking quizzes and
Display Object software. Students were allowed to work in small groups or as
individuals. Most of the tutors were female graduate students.
In Blockstacking the students take a series of quizzes that are designed to
assess the spatial skills of the student in a non-threatening manner. Students
are given the opportunity to use the Lego blocks to visualize the exercises
better in three dimensions. They are given side and front views and are asked
to construct top views, showing the minimum and maximum (Fig. 1) blocks
configurations. The minimum blocks configuration is the object which contains
the minimum number of blocks while still remaining consistent with the front
and side views. The maximum blocks configuration is that which contains the
maximum number of blocks. The instructor and tutors use the results to decide
how best to approach tutoring the student. A "rap" version was created by one
undergraduate student in fun and it has been popular with our freshman and
pre-college outreach programs.
- Presentation by Professor Agogino
- Hand drawing exercises
- Lego exercises
- Blockstacking software to assess spatial skills
- Display Object software to develop spatial skills
Fig. 1: A maximum blocks configuration in the Blockstacking assessment
Display Object  gives the students the opportunity to rotate objects freely
about different axes, which makes it an excellent tool for visualization (Fig.
2). It has an easy to use interface that allows the student to work in virtual
objects through standard and arbitrary three dimensional rotations. The objects
that can viewed include those used in the hand drawing, Lego, and Blockstacking
Fig. 2: Display Object screen in "display" mode .
Several students were interviewed and asked what they liked best about the
workshop. These are representative responses:
. . . Display Object. You could rotate [the objects] around and see
different sides -- the top view and the side view. It was really, really
helpful to me. It was helpful for me because I had a lot of trouble with
spatial reasoning and picturing 3-D objects from a flat surface..."
I think that more high-tech tools in undergraduate education would really
help and improve students' scores because when you make something fun for a
student they get more involved. . . . they would actually be excited and
they'd want to learn. So I think that if they show you how a certain particular
class can be fun, more students are going to want to learn it.
All students were given a survey after the workshop. All of the students
credited the workshop as either "helping" or "helping a lot" with "some better"
or "much better" improvement in level of confidence as a result of the
The students were asked to rank the elements of the workshop in order of
importance. The students indicated the hand drawings portion of the workshop to
be the most valuable. Placing second and third were the computer applications,
Display Object and Blockstacking. The students indicated that the computer
applications were more valuable than the lego exercises, presentation, and even
the help of the teaching assistants and instructor.
Fig. 3: Students ranking of elements of workshop (higher is better).
Over 500 students in an introductory engineering course have participated in
our spatial reasoning instruction. Overall students made significant progress
in spatial reasoning. During one semester with a class of 150 students pre- and
post-tests were administered to quantify this effect.
Pre-assessment results indicate incoming engineering students demonstrate a
wide range of abilities in spatial reasoning. At the beginning of the semester,
males had more experience in orthographic drawing (t = 2.43, p
= .016) and had better spatial problem solving performance on the engineering
items ( t = 2.2, p < .02). Women also showed a tendency to
do worse on generating isometric views (t = 1.86, p = .06).
Gender differences at the beginning of the semester were also found at other
universities who administered the same pre-assessment. (orthographic: p = .01,
isometric: p = 0.12).
After the spatial reasoning intervention and at the end of the course, there
were no gender differences in spatial reasoning ability (post: t = .76 p =
.45 ). Gender differences in ability at the beginning of the course appear
to be ameliorated by the course and our short spatial reasoning tutorial.
Consistent with literature on improvement with spatial training, women also
tended to do better than males on the post assessment on traditional items when
given more experience(t= -1.79 p=.07) .
Although males and females differed in the ability to generate orthographic
projections on the pretest, these differences disappeared on the post-test. We
recommend that instruction should include spatial strategies as a part of the
mix of approaches for engineering problem solving. Student feedback from the
workshops indicate that the small study group concept integrated with
instructional software is an effective framework for providing in-depth
tutoring on spatial strategies.
The Spatial reasoning group at U.C. Berkeley (in alphabetical order) consists
of Alice Agogino, John Bell, Antonio Hernandez, Sherry Hsi, Thomas Knudsen,
Allen Lam, Dennis Lieu, Marcia C. Linn and James Osborn. Our collaborators at
the Synthesis coalition institutions are: Rollie Jenison at Iowa State, Adebisi
Oladipupo at Hampton University, David Cantu at Cal Poly, Isaac Porche at
Southern University, and Sheri Sheppard, Gayle Curtis, and Rolf Faste at
Stanford University. We would also like to acknowledge the study performed by
Sunny Gil in evaluating the Saturday Workshops in terms of their value in
instructional technology. A WWW document of this study with digital video
examples can be found at:
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learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
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Connections in the First Two Years," (ed., Lawrence P. Grayson), Frontiers
in Education Toward 2000, IEEE, pp. 563-569.
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Multimedia Case Studies to Teach Engineering Design" Journal of Educational
Multimedia and Hypermedia, 3 (3/4), 351-376, 1994.
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Engineering Undergraduate Majors: Final Report to the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation - an Ethnographic Inquiry at Seven Institutions, Ethnographic and
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Scaffolding Students in Spatial Reasoning" (to be submitted to ASEE Journal
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