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Monday, March 19, 2012

Spatial and STEM: Can we add some geography?

Jonathan Wai wrote about spatial intelligence in Psychology Today. His article was titled Why We Don't Value Spatial Intelligence. He doesn't explicitly answer the question but does point out that as a society we don't test for spatial ability and hence miss the chance to grow it in our students. Those who do have it, research suggest, can do great things in physics and engineering.

He concludes:
We need to learn to value these beautiful minds.

We need to identify them. We need to provide a tailored education for them. And we need to place the tools in their hands so that they can help invent our future.
Tom Baker addressed this topic at the Esri GIS Education Community blog. His post is titled STEM Education's Critical Dependence on GIS. He cites the National Research Council's Learning to Think Spatially document from 2006 that suggests GIS is a tool for learning to think spatially.

I have to point out that there's a bit of a disconnect here. Wai speak about spatial intelligence as about 3D visualization and "in your head" processing. He ties it to physicists and engineers. That makes me think immediately of Tim O'Reilly and the Maker Movement.

While the NRC report starts out with Watson and Crick and their discovery or visualization of the double helix structure of DNA, I think most people can't or won't or don't connect that type of hard science to geography and geospatial technology. As someone who studied chemistry, I'd use the visualization of the benzene ring as a spatial thinking example.

What's missing? One or more great stories of well-known geospatial scientists that solved a real world problem with spatial thinking. We as a community know they are out there, but those stories are not told as frequently as the well-known ones above. I just heard a great story from my former colleague at Esri Boston, Peter Girard, now CTO at AppGeo. He explained how he used some high level math to solve a complex bounding area problem for a spatial index needed for a client.

The trick is we need to identify these stories and tell them. That's how Watson and Crick's double helix got famous. That's how Kekulé's benzene ring got famous. What are our geospatial stories? How do we make them part of everyone's education the way these two stories currently are?

What story do we tell? John Snow and cholera. What other real life, true stories of spatial thinking do we as geographers have to tell? Once we get that book of short stories written (has it  been written?), we can make a better case for both spatial literacy education for the next generation, and the great things they can do with those skills in their jobs in later life.