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Research has shown that people with high levels of spatial ability are much more likely to succeed in STEM subjects, enjoy doing them and select them for further education and careers compared to those with low spatial ability. Women's spatial ability tends to be lower than men's, which may explain in part why fewer women than men pursue these subjects. Photo: Colourbox

Finding ways to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects

How do we help the young, especially women, so they are better prepared for learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects? A multi-university consortium including NTNU has been awarded a four year, €4.12 million Horizon 2020 grant to help answer this question.

With NTNU as a leading partner and consortium member, Technological University Dublin will coordinate an international research project which aims to enhance the spatial ability of young people and to help close the gender gap in STEM disciplines.

The multi-agency project, Spatially Enhanced Learning Linked to STEM (SellSTEM), was awarded €4.12M in funding from the Marie Skłodowska Curie Innovative Training Network under Horizon 2020, an EU 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness.

Research has shown that people with high levels of spatial ability are much more likely to succeed in STEM subjects, enjoy doing them and select them for further education and careers compared to those with low spatial ability.

The large gender gap in spatial ability in favour of males means women are over-represented in the low spatial ability group and more disadvantaged in STEM learning.

Over four years SellSTEM, which is a consortium of ten European universities and eight non-academic partners, will recruit and train 15 PhD students to develop innovative and practical approaches to improve spatial ability among young people in Europe, so they are better prepared for learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

“SellSTEM will develop methods to foster spatial ability among children through online learning, tactile activities, maker-space workshop, project-based learning, and integrated with the STEM curriculum,” said Gavin Duffy, from TU Dublin. “They will work with teachers and teacher educators to identify barriers and enablers to developing spatial ability so they can provide sustainable classroom solutions to raise the spatial ability of children above existing levels.

Duffy said SellSTEM should bring fresh thinking to promoting STEM education and careers, including addressing the gender gap in STEM enrolment. In that way, the researchers hope they will help Europe to achieve its agenda for growth and jobs.

Professor Mila Vulchanova, Work Package lead and Principal Investigator for the consortium at NTNU, adds, “The NTNU project will shed new light on the relative contribution of nature and nurture to spatial ability development in order to identify which factors of spatial ability are more malleable than others and, therefore, can be developed through training, a key issue for education. We will also investigate how the gender gap in spatial ability varies by SES and region across Europe.”

In addition to TU Dublin and NTNU, the members of the SellSTEM consortium are Technische Universiteit Delft, Bangor University, Latvijas Universitāte, Universiteit Leiden, Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg – PLUS, Universität Regensburg, Universität Koblenz-Landau and Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan – KTH, Microsoft Ireland Operations, Stichting VHTO, SAP Service and Support Centre, Ionad Oideachais Mhuineacháin, De Galan School Voor Training, Science Hub TU Delft, Marino Institute of Education, Stichting Waag Society and VHTO, National Expert Organisation on Girls/Women and Science/Technology, Netherlands