Legos & The Engineer's Brain

Recent research from Vanderbilt (also in the NY Times) finds that performance on early (age 13) spatial reasoning tests increases the power to predict the student's scholarly publications and patents some 30 years later above and beyond SAT mathematical and verbal scores alone:

The study, conducted by David Lubinski and colleagues at Vanderbilt University Peabody College of education and human development, provides evidence that early spatial ability – the skill required to mentally manipulate 2D and 3D objects – predicts the development of new knowledge, and especially innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) domains, above and beyond more traditional measures of mathematical and verbal ability.

Obviously, the SAT score can predict future performance, especially in academic areas such as research publications and patent applications. Being an engineer by training, I find it interesting that spatial reasoning can increase the accuracy of these predictions. Engineers reason about systems on a day-to-day basis. Mechanical, chemical and civil engineers get to touch their creations; software engineers like myself must reason about the slightly less physical applications and distributed systems they create.

I've theorized my more logical & analytical thought processes are directly (cor)related to my love for Legos as a child. I always built the designs described in the instructions first and only then would I get more creative with the pieces after I understood how they could fit together. The first page of the design only uses 3 or 4 pieces and it's obvious how they join one another. Each successive step only differs by 3 or 4 pieces, but it's not always obvious how (or why!) they assimilate into the previous state. Sometimes it was required to set down the current piece and start building a subsystem of the design. It was both magical and eye-opening when all of the pieces came together. Legos described a way for viewing and putting together the world different from any other toy in my childhood.

That process alone, of determining the current state of a system, what it should be and how to get there most efficiently, is a near perfect overview of the field of engineering. I cannot wait to introduce Legos to my daughter!

Without a doubt, working through this process over and over with Legos pushed my brain to hone these skills. Obviously, engineers face challenges that involve less plastic and more math, can be orders of magnitude more abstract and vary along more dimensions than just three; however, the foundation for thinking critically about systems both in their individual pieces and as a whole is critical to succeeding in the STEM fields.

July 17, 2013

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