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  1. Nhi Dinh
  2. Lab Manager
  4. Georgetown University
  1. Rob Cortes
  2. Research Coordinator
  4. Georgetown University
  1. Bob Kolvoord
  2. https://www.jmu.edu/isat/people/faculty/kolvoord-bob.shtml
  3. Dean
  5. James Madison University

Neural and cognitive strengthening of conceptual knowledge and reasoning in c...

NSF Awards: 1661065

2018 (see original presentation & discussion)

Grades 9-12

Spatial thinking is a powerful driver of success in the STEM classroom and workforce. Seeking to identify mechanism of spatial learning, our project will collect functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral data of high school students before and after learning in a geoscience course that uses a novel spatially-based curriculum. We will use neural representations of a group of specially trained teachers as an expert standard to determine neural markers of students’ conceptual knowledge and spatial reasoning. Since fostering the true conceptual understanding in the minds of students, not just the right answers on the test, is a goal of teachers in every STEM classroom; we are interested in looking at the neural representation of conceptual development and understanding. We also aim to see whether students utilize the spatial thinking skills they learn in the geospatial semester to solve complex reasoning problems.

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Discussion from the 2018 STEM for All Video Showcase (14 posts)
  • Icon for: Rob Cortes

    Rob Cortes

    Research Coordinator
    May 14, 2018 | 03:53 p.m.

    Hello everyone! My name is Rob and I am the research coordinator for this project. This is the 2nd study we've conducted with the Geospatial Semester (GSS). The first study focused on the cognitive and neural effects of GSS on spatial thinking. With this 2nd study, we are asking higher level questions about the effect of GSS on concept formation and complex syllogistic reasoning. We will start data collection this coming summer for our first cohort of participants. Thanks and let me know if you have any questions about the video—I would love to tell you more about this amazing project.


    Here are some questions for you to answer after watching the video:

    1) what is your favorite part of the video and why?

    2) what are some ways you use spatial thinking in your daily life? In your career?

    3) if we are able to detect knowledge retention and concept formation via neural patterns, how could this fit in with other methods of knowledge assessments (e.g. standardized tests, essay questions, etc.)? 

  • Icon for: Courtney Arthur

    Courtney Arthur

    May 14, 2018 | 07:33 p.m.

    This project (and video) is simply amazing. I am curious as to whether student's performance in other subject areas, especially math, improves or changes- especially in the high school courses, such as geometry?


  • Icon for: Rob Cortes

    Rob Cortes

    Research Coordinator
    May 14, 2018 | 07:53 p.m.

    Hi Courtney! Thank you so much for your kind words. You raise an interesting question, as the spatial skills students learn in the GSS could certainly benefit performance in other domains of STEM that require spatial thinking, such as mathematics (and particularly geometry). We haven't yet examined the effect of GSS on math ability, as we were primarily interested in how GSS affected spatial thinking and scientific (STEM) reasoning. However, we do have data from the first GSS study on participants' math anxiety and self-rated math ability before and after they took the course, as well as their grades in math courses and their test scores on standardized math exams. We are currently conducting data analysis for the first GSS project and this is definitely something we can (and will) look into. Thank you for the suggestion! I'll let you know what we find.

  • Icon for: Louis Gross

    Louis Gross

    Director and Professor
    May 15, 2018 | 04:45 p.m.

    Rob et al., Thanks for providing a stimulating example of how multiple fields can come together to advance our knowledge of learning. I'm sure it must be difficult to obtain sufficient sample sizes of subjects to be able to compare the (I bet) complex fMRI results. Are there some novel statistical challenges in doing this? Also, I'm wondering whether your choice of spatial reasoning for this project was based on an inherent interest in how humans process spatial information and change their processing through exposure to the experiences such as GSS, or whether there is concordance in the cognitive neuroscience community that spatial reasoning (as compared to hosts of other types of reasoning that can be evaluated using fMRI) is a particularly good choice for analyzing learning?



  • Icon for: Rob Cortes

    Rob Cortes

    Research Coordinator
    May 21, 2018 | 06:13 p.m.

    Hi Lou, thank you for your comment! There are certainly challenges with comparing fMRI results across groups of high school students. With the first study, we took a propensity score matching approach by collecting baseline measures of spatial ability, GPA, PSAT scores from GSS students and control students, and then balancing the groups so that their average scores are equivalent at timepoint 1. We did this to achieve a quasi-experimental design. In the second study, we plan to recruit from targeted control classes (such as Physics, Biology, etc.). There are pros and cons to each approach and I would be happy to talk more about this.

    To your second question, the answer is yes to both! We are very interested in spatial thinking as a cognitive ability, especially as it relates to relational and analogical reasoning. In addition, this research was also motivated by the converging psychological evidence that spatial ability is critical to success in STEM. As scientists, we are passionate about broadening participation in STEM and believe demonstrating the importance of spatial education in promoting STEM success seems like one way for us to help achieve this mission. Lastly, we are interested in studying spatial thinking as a learning experience and are currently working on examining the dynamic states of connectivity between functional brain networks across these spatial tasks.

    As I mentioned, I would be more than happy to talk in further detail about any of this. Thanks again for your interest!

  • Icon for: Dave Barnes

    Dave Barnes

    Associate Executive Director
    May 15, 2018 | 05:08 p.m.

    Hi Rob and team,

    Very interesting!  At the start do you see a wide variety of spatial reasoning skill in the high school students you engage or are high school students fairly uniform in the spatial abilities?  Are there any differences with respect to gender or perceived mathematical ability or success in school which connects with spatial reasoning?  

    I also found your interest in the comparisons between the teachers and the students very interesting!  

  • Icon for: Nhi Dinh

    Nhi Dinh

    Lead Presenter
    Lab Manager
    May 17, 2018 | 03:20 p.m.

    Hi Dave,

     Thank you for joining the conversation! We starts data collection for this project in the fall and will definitely look into if the spatial abilities are uniform or varied across high school students. We are also interested in looking at the difference in perceived mathematical and spatial ability with respect to gender in relation to success in school and spatial reasoning. For our previous project (http://stemforall2017.videohall.com/presentations/1041), we collected data on students’ and parents’ perceived mathematical and spatial ability. So far, we found that parents of boys believed their child had better mental manipulation and navigation abilities than girls. These differences held for mental manipulation ability even when controlling for students’ actual performance on a mental rotation task. Thus, parents appear to hold gendered beliefs about their child’s spatial abilities. However, we did not find evidence for differences in parents’ beliefs about their child’s math. Data analysis is still in full swing!

  • Icon for: Alan Peterfreund

    Alan Peterfreund

    May 17, 2018 | 03:13 p.m.

    Interesting project.  Who is your partner at Dartmouth.  I am working on an EPSCoR with Peter Tse and other on the Neural Basis of Attention and would like to make sure they are connected.

  • Icon for: Nhi Dinh

    Nhi Dinh

    Lead Presenter
    Lab Manager
    May 17, 2018 | 03:21 p.m.

    Hi Alan! We are working with David Kraemer (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences) at Dartmouth. 

  • Icon for: Ronald Greenberg

    Ronald Greenberg

    Higher Ed Faculty
    May 17, 2018 | 03:42 p.m.

    So interesting to use fMRI. Has this been tried with any other sort of instruction, and what sort of results have been obtained?

  • Icon for: Rob Cortes

    Rob Cortes

    Research Coordinator
    May 21, 2018 | 02:51 p.m.

    Hi Ronald, thanks for your question. As far as we know, this is one of the first research studies to examine the neural impacts of classroom based education at the high school level. This is one of the novel aspects of our project that we are very excited about.

  • Icon for: Domenic Scorzetti

    Domenic Scorzetti

    Graduate Student
    May 20, 2018 | 11:43 p.m.

    Hello Ms. Dinh and Mr. Cortes,

    This looks like a fascinating project! Are you able to elaborate more on the Geospatial Semester itself? The video seems to show it as a computer-based course. What types of tasks/mapping are students exposed to? Is the course meant for a certain grade level? Is it a graduation requirement or an elective? What are the prerequisites?

    While getting fMRI data will be revealing, did you find any difficulties in obtaining consent for these procedures? How do you handle medical privacy and balance this with publishing results?

    I saw in an earlier post here that the first time this was done that you had data on math anxiety? Any details you can share about that?

    Thank you

  • Icon for: Rob Cortes

    Rob Cortes

    Research Coordinator
    May 21, 2018 | 05:24 p.m.

    Hi Domenic, thanks for your comment. We haven't had too much difficulty obtaining consent. We work with students, parents, their schools, and our own university to get IRB approval, as well as student assent & parental consent to participate in our fMRI study. We de-identify all of our data after its collected and store it in a locked cabinet to ensure full data privacy and confidentiality.

    We are still examining the effect of the course on math anxiety, math ability, and grades in math courses; we will happily let you know what we find!


  • Icon for: Bob Kolvoord

    Bob Kolvoord

    May 21, 2018 | 07:24 a.m.

    I'll leave your latter questions for Rob and Nhi to answer.  Here's some more detail about the Geospatial Semester.  It is offered to high school seniors (although a few highly motivated juniors sometimes participate).  It is an elective course, but students can earn dual enrollment credit from James Madison University.  We've been running this project since 2005.  There are no prerequisites and we often see students who aren't necessarily the highest academic achievers perform very well (the persistent academic achievers sometimes struggle with the open-ended aspects of the course - having no right answer when you're used to chasing the right answer can be disconcerting!).  Students in the class learn basic GIS techniques and progress from doing short exercises or tutorials to longer scenario-based problems (evacuating an area in response to a chemical spill or examining the evolving demographics of a large city).  The course culminates with students pursuing a large-scale, independent project of their own choosing, usually with a local connection or component.  JMU faculty are regular visitors to the high school classes and provide project mentoring and guidance.  

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