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The Malleability of Spatial Ability Under Treatment of a FIRST LEGO® League Competition-based Simulation

By Steve Coxon, Ph.D.

The National Science Board (NSB) (2010) details the lack of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) preparation in schools, suggesting that, while many reports have made recommendations focusing on raising the overall performance of America’s students, few have “focused on raising the ceiling of achievement for our Nation’s most talented and motivated students” (p. 4). One option to challenge students spatially is the FIRST LEGO® League (FLL), an academic competition. In the FLL, participants engineer and program a LEGO robot to perform tasks on a table set-up with LEGO objects related to the year’s real-world science theme. 

Theoretical Framework

Spatial ability is a construct that characterizes a human difference in “the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images” (Lohman, 1993, p. 3). The connection between spatial ability and success in STEM fields is demonstrated through two longitudinal studies, Project Talent and the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). While the relationship between spatial ability and success in STEM fields is evident, little research has been conducted on spatial talent development through treatments. Particularly apropos to this study, Verner (2004) has used pre- and post-measures with middle and high school students participating in a robotics curriculum and found significant student progress in the tasks related to spatial ability. However, too few controlled studies have been conducted, prompting the present study.


A stratified random sample was drawn from gifted programs from public schools in a Midwestern metropolitan area to approximate the gifted population of the metropolitan region with a sample of 80 gifted students. The Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) (Lohman & Hagen, 2001) verbal composite was used as a pre-assessment of ability to test between the experimental and control groups to ensure that there were not significant intelligence differences between them. The Project TALENT Spatial Ability Assessments (American Institute for Research, 2011), referred to here as the spatial composite, were used as a pre- and post-assessment of spatial ability. Developed in the early 1960s, the spatial composite has been widely used in research studies, including longitudinal studies (Flanagan, 1979; Wai, et al., 2009).

An experimental intervention study with two groups (experimental and control) was conducted. Each group originally consisted of 40 gifted children ages 9 to 14 (the ages allowed in FLL competition) and was randomly divided into four subgroups of 10 participants (as 10 is the maximum size allowed for an FLL team). Participants in both groups took a pre-assessment of spatial ability and the CogAT verbal subtest prior to participating in the intervention. For five consecutive days, the experimental subgroups met for four hours per day, for a total of 20 hours of treatment. The research on the national talent search programs suggests that a week of intensive intervention would likely yield large learning gains for gifted students (Swiatek, 2007).


Treatment with LEGO robotics among gifted males ages 9-14 produced significant and meaningful mean gain scores on a measure of spatial ability; however, although significant gains for all experimental participants were hypothesized, there were no significant gains for females. This is surprising given that several reviewed studies suggested that although females were likely to perform lower on measures of spatial ability (Lohman, 2005), they were likely to make gains under treatment similar to males (Spence et al., 2009). Based on this, it is not surprising that a t-test comparing male (n=47) mean pre-test scores on the spatial battery (90.68) with female (n=28) mean pre-test scores (80.11) showed a significant difference: t(75) = -2.21, p < .05, but it is surprising that female post-test mean scores did not show improvements. 

Implications for Practice

The STEM pipeline is losing potential long before children reach college and have the opportunity to engage in more spatially-oriented curriculum in engineering and arts programs, among many others. This study sought to illuminate a potential means by which to serve spatially-able students in schools through further developing their spatial talents with a FIRST LEGO League-based unit as a potential means by which to increase the pipeline of individuals capable of achieving high levels of success in STEM fields. The results suggest that the treatment with LEGO robotics meaningfully increases gifted males mean score gains on a measure of spatial ability. As spatial ability is important to STEM success in higher education, career success, and innovations, which are important to our quality of life and economic improvements, this is an important finding that should be incorporated into practice in schools. 

LEGO robotics is a means by which schools can challenge gifted males and facilitate their spatial talent-development. That females did not make similar spatial gains suggests that more research is needed to determine why this was the case, but not that LEGO robotics is not potentially good for females as well. Moreover, the potential for underrepresented populations to develop spatial talents through FLL is hinted at in the present study with their particularly large gains described in the original paper. While there is a paucity of young people in the pipeline overall, children within this population are almost absent. The lessened diversity in STEM fields is not only detrimental to the individuals whose potential goes unfulfilled, but to society as a whole. While more research is needed to affirm the large gains found in this studies’ small sample of underrepresented participants, when considered alongside the other evidence provided in the literature review for FLL’s effectiveness in increasing interest in STEM fields, schools should not delay beginning FLL programs, particularly with these populations. 


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