Effects of Symmetric and Asymmetric Manipulatives on Spatial Skills Training

Ning Fang
Professor and Department Head
Utah State University

Need: Spatial skills are not only important in daily life, but also essential for learning STEM subjects. Research has shown that a positive correlation exists between students’ spatial skills and their academic performance and career choices in STEM disciplines. Under recent grant support from the National Science Foundation IUSE program, our project team recently developed an innovative virtual and physical manipulatives (VPM) technology for use in the spatial training of undergraduate engineering students. This technology includes 10 manipulatives with a variety of symmetric and asymmetric geometric features and real-world applications. The results of our extensive literature review reveal an important research gap pertaining to a lack of knowledge on the effect of geometric features of manipulatives on spatial skills training. Without a fundamental understanding of this effect, it would be challenging to design effective manipulatives for use in spatial skills training.

Guiding Question: What type of manipulatives, symmetric and asymmetric, has a higher level of difficulty for students to mentally rotate during VPM training?

Outcomes: The project team has developed 10 virtual and physical manipulatives, including Geneva wheel, spinner flasks, component grip, door lock, pulley, wheel bearing inside a hub, crankshaft, shaft arm valve, compressor wheel, and vacuum pump. Among these 10 manipulatives, five have symmetric geometrical features and another 5 have asymmetric geometrical features. During VPM training, a student trainee performed both single-step and double-step rotations. The data collected from this research show that student trainees perceived double-step rotations with asymmetric manipulatives more challenging than double-step rotations with symmetric manipulatives.

Broader Impacts: The results generated from this research imply that when designing manipulatives, designers should pay sufficient attention to creating asymmetric features for manipulatives for use in spatial skills training in all STEM subjects.

Acknowledgments: This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1831740. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Ning Fang, Utah State University; Ahmad Farooq, Utah State University; Wade Goodridge, Utah State University