University of Illinois at Chicago

Spatial Thinking in STEM: Embodied Learning Environments and Student Understanding of Spatial Concepts

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posted on 2019-08-06, 00:00 authored by Dane F DeSutter
This dissertation uses a series of experiments and a qualitative process study to investigate how learning environments leveraging embodied actions can support student understanding of spatial concepts in STEM. Chapter I provides a rationale for spatializing the curriculum in STEM, lays out a methodology for the study of embodiment of spatial thought, and poses research questions. Chapter II surveys theoretical and empirical work to clarify the specific meaning of embodiment, draw a clear distinction between embodiment and embodied actions, and argues for constraints on how embodiment should be studied in learning settings as we advance theory. Chapter III reports on two experimental interventions that ask the principal research question of to what extent embodied actions can promote understanding of the spatial concepts geometry, symmetry, and transformation in organic chemistry. The results of this study indicate that there is no clear differential benefit of gesture or a gesture-driven embodied interface on supporting student understanding of the targeted concepts. Chapter IV reports on a qualitative study of the learning environment containing the embodied interface from Chapter III. This study asks how students bring processes of reasoning to bear when they learn with the embodied interface. I developed a coding scheme documenting spatial processes of reasoning and used this coding scheme to develop problem solving profiles. The results of this study indicate that although the manifestations of embodiment did not change, students’ processes of reasoning changed qualitatively to include (1) making more predictions and (2) using more self-agentive language when describing transformation around an axis. Chapter V synthesizes the studies and provides directions for future work.



Stieff, Mike


Stieff, Mike


Learning Sciences

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Wink, Donald Lyons, Leilah Wiley, Jennifer Uttal, David

Submitted date

May 2019

Issue date


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