Taylor, Holly A. and Allyson Hutton (2013) Think3d!: Training Spatial Thinking Fundamental to STEM Education, Cognition and Instruction, 31:4, 434-455.


This article describes the initial implementation of an innovative STEAM program (Think3d) for elementary-age children that used origami and pop-up paper engineering to promote visuospatial thinking. All students completed assessments at three points in time: before, during and after the intervention. Results suggest the program’s promise in promoting spatial thinking, showing both spatial thinking gains and extensive engagement in the program. Questionnaire responses suggest the program may have increased appeal for girls, which could play a role in reducing gender disparities in spatial reasoning and in situations where spatial thinking can be applied. Think3d tasks follow the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards. Children participating in the study tended to move into intentional origami and paper engineering they strive to (a) define and delimit the problem; (b) design solutions, including generating alternative possibilities and determining the best design; and (c) test iterations of the design to focus an optimal one.

Key Findings:

  • Change scores for the mental paper folding assessment showed that there was a marginally significant positive difference in improvement between the intervention students and the control students.
  • Change scores for the make a dice assessment showed a positive difference in improvement between the intervention students and the control students.
  • Questionnaire responses revealed that students had fun in each of the lessons and that girls rated the lessons as more fun.
  • Students reported little difficulty with the lessons, with no significant gender differences in responses.
  • Students reported a preference for learning lesson material either visually or both verbally and visually.
  • Ninety-one percent of students reported practicing origami repeatedly and 93% reported doing origami outside of the planned lessons.
  • Students reported the most collaboration when putting together their origami poster and the least in imagining objects in single-sheet paper engineering.

Significance of the Findings:

Spatial thinking skills positively relate to STEM outcomes, but spatial training is largely absent in elementary school. Elementary school is a time when children develop foundational cognitive skills that will support STEM learning throughout their education. Spatial thinking may serve as a foundational cognitive skill. The present research examined the impact of an embodied spatial training program on elementary students’ spatial thinking and showed spatial thinking gains in two assessments.


All students completed quantitative assessments at three points in time: before, during and after the intervention. The assessments included three spatial reasoning assessment worksheets and a grade-specific math and science assessment worksheet. Qualitative data was collected through student and teacher questionnaires, teacher interviews and classroom observation.

Limitations of the Research:

As the research relied on 52 fourth-grade students from one rural elementary school in New Hampshire, this small sample size can make it difficult to generalize outcomes.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Future research could explore developmental issues related to how embodied spatial training might support STEM learning and outcomes. Future research might also explore multiple delivery methods, and develop a version based solely in models and graphics that can be implemented across languages. Both boys and girls rated the lessons as fun, but girls rated the lessons as more fun, even though both rated the lessons as equally difficult. This factor may be important for exploring ways to provide effective spatial training for girls. The researchers hoped that spatial training might help mitigate gender disparity in STEM disciplines, as spatial ability has been shown to mediate math performance, particularly for females. The program design had students manipulate different variables (angle of fold, shape and angle of cut) and observe outcomes. The researchers plan to address a hypothesis about variable manipulations. Aspects of the design of and skills addressed by Think3d connect to STEM concepts and process, allowing for a hypothesis about where to examine transfer to STEM gains in future research.