Skip to main content

Sketching and Spatial Thinking in STEM

One of the big questions SILC explores is the link between spatial thinking and STEM achievement. STEM fields are inherently spatial: engineering requires the use of sketching, chemistry

“Sketch Worksheets’ comparisons of student and instructor sketches is carried out by an analogy model, developed in collaboration with Northwestern psychology professor Dedre Gentner” (Morris, 2017).

relies on the perception of molecular structures, and understanding the relationships between 3D objects in a space are all related to STEM learning and are necessary in many STEM related careers (Uttal, 2013). The good news is spatial thinking can be improved in some instances with intervention through spatial training (Uttal, 2013). Sketching can be utilized as a tool to understand spatial relations. Initiatives by SILC Members aim to integrate sketching and spatial thinking within specified educational contexts, such as medical school or high-school. Dr. Ken Forbus and Mr. Leonard Shaprio, two SILC affiliated researches, have developed novel processes and technologies demonstrate the advantages spatial abilities of sketching.

Ken Forbus, a professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University is head of the Qualitative Reasoning Group who developed the Sketch Worksheets software, which mimics the purpose of a worksheet assigned in a classroom. Compared to typical worksheets Sketch Worksheets compare student’s solutions with the instructor’s model and instantly provides

“Touch, sight, and marks on paper were used to explore and understand the form and detail of the humerus”(University of Cape Town News, 2018).

feedback. Spatial sketching has recently been introduced to medical students at the University of Cape Town by instructor Leonard Shapiro. He has created a specific version of sketching titled the Haptico-Visual Observation and Drawing (HVO&D) method. HVO&D “employs the sense of touch (haptics) as well as sight, coupled with the simultaneous act of gesture drawing” (University of Cape Town News, 2018). UCT students sketching models of bones would feel the object with one hand while the other records what is being felt.  The HVO&D method capitalizes on the sensory information collected from the nerves in the hand and stored in the sensory cortex of the brain.

The main goal of the Sketch Worksheets initiative and HVO&D method is to expand learning and teaching using spatial technologies and processes, and incorporate this type of thinking and training into the STEM fields.




Morris, Amanda. (2017, April 14). Helping students learn by sketching. Engineering News,

University of Cape Town News. (2018, July 25). A novel approach to studying anatomy. University of Cape Town News,

Uttal, D. H., Miller, D. I., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). Exploring and enhancing spatial thinking: Links to achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?. Current Directions in Psychological Science22(5), 367-373.