On Spatial Cognition …or spinning three dimensional objects in one’s head
Girls are not supposed be at good at spinning three dimensional objects in their heads. I was told early on that I was an exception to this “rule.” As a child I received the second highest score in the country on an exam that required figuring out which three dimensional shape was formed by a flattened pattern. Now, I am no scientist. But I have my own personal experience that could point to both nurture and nature making the difference. My father is an architect and an artist. At a very early age he had us drawing from life. My sisters and I would sit around an arrangement of fruit, a coffee pot and a vase and draw and paint it. My being the youngest, I joined in on the activity at a very early age. So that is the nurture explanation. Here is the nature explanation: My father is an architect and artist. Architects are pretty good at spinning three dimensional objects in their heads and I have his genes. Like I said I am no scientist, so I am not sure what measures are used to create this perception that girls have poor spatial cognition. But I have a great deal anecdotal experience with male and female 19+ year olds working with challenging spatial problems for the first time. As a professor of architecture at RISD, I have been teaching the first semester core design studio since 1989 and I have been the primary author of the curriculum since then. The problems we give require many more aspects of spatial cognition than the intelligence test I referred to…the one requiring matching unfolded patterns with their corresponding three dimensional counterparts. Our problems involve complex three dimensional geometries, that each student must construct and represent through precise measured drawings. There are roughly 90 to 100 students taking this class each year, and I teach a section of about 12-14 students. That is about 1500 students who I have witnessed taking this course and 208 of my own students that I worked very closely with. (This is accounting for two sabbaticals and two years away teaching in Rome) That is a lot of direct observation with spatial problems and the step by step development of tackling them by both young male and female students. I have not and do not experience a difference in spatial cognition that falls on gender lines. Which leads me to a great teacher of mine, Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, who wrote the book, The Mismeasure of Man. In this book, Gould uncovers the biases that intelligence tests are based on throughout history and how the data from these tests were consistently misused. I’d like to quote from the introduction here:
We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
I’ve been thinking about this quote and my own experience with the stereotype that threatens the hopes of young women in excelling as architects or engineers. That is because Obama has decided to make Lawrence Summers, someone who has, in my opinion, falsely identified the limits that women face from the outside as “limits that are lying within”. He was the president of Harvard who received a vote of “‘no confidence” after a lecture he gave on his hypotheses of why men outnumber women at the high end of excellence in the science and engineering fields. Summers’ hypotheses were, as he stated in his famous talk: #1 “the high-powered job hypothesis”…or the idea that women tend to have a distaste for positions that are highly demanding; #2 due to fewer women having an aptitude at the high end than men, that would suit them for these positions and #3 due to different socialization and patterns of discrimination. He goes on to say that these three are also presented in the ranking order of their importance in contributing to this discrepancy. Because there is a lot of press attempting to cleanse our memories of what happened at Harvard and who Summers is, I encourage you to read his own words by clicking here.
Apparently, my link to Summers’ comments is broken & Harvard pulled the transcript of his remarks from their website. That is o.k. because I have a copy of his transcript which I will post on a new page. Look at the column to the right for a transcript of his remarks.
January 8, 2009…I found another online source…The link above should now work