Quirks & Quarks

Lego and video games STEM the gender divide

Playing with construction toys and certain video games unlocks superior abilities in spatial thinking - in girls as well as boys
Young LEGO builders hard at work at Surrey Museum. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Spatial cognition and STEM

If you're good at solving a Rubik's cube or doing those wooden 3-D puzzles where all the pieces interlock and fit together in one - and only one - way, then you probably have good skills in "spatial cognition."  The ability to visualize shapes in three dimensions, and imagine rotating them, and fitting them together is a valuable skill in a range of scientific fields, including engineering, chemistry and even medicine.  Controversially, when large groups of people are tested for these skills men tend to score higher, on average, than women.

Dr. Anne Gold, Director of Education and Outreach for the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder was particularly interested in this skill in the geology students she works with.  In geology, students need to think of complex structures - like sedimentary rocks - shifting and changing through time and space - a classic spatial cognition puzzle. She and her colleagues have found that there is immense variation between students in first year classes in this kind of ability.  "If I'm an instructor standing in front of undergraduate students, trying to teach a spatially demanding concept, if some students stare at me with a blank stare, I want to be able to get them the skills so they can really understand." 

Examples of the spatial cognition puzzles that were used to test students in Dr. Gold's study (A. Gold/CIRES)
Testing the skills

She and her colleagues tested more than 300 students in their spatial cognition, and also quizzed them about their background, including what science they studied in high school, what their SAT scores were, and whether they had played video games or with construction toys in their childhood.  They found, as expected, great variation in the spatial cognition test, and they also found that the male students, on average, scored better than the female students.

Construction toys make a difference

But when it came to video games and construction toys, they found something very interesting.  Students who had played with certain video games - adventure games with complex maps, certain sports games, and simulation games like Minecraft, as well as those who had played with construction toys like Lego, tended to be good at spatial cognition. Even more interesting they found that there was no difference in spatial cognition between males and females - if both had played with these games or toys.

While Dr. Gold points out that this is just a correlation, it does suggest that it might be gendered play - rather than innate ability - that could explain the sex differences in spatial cognition abilities. She says evidence supports the idea that these skills are trainable, as well. "I'm a parent of two girls, and I'm totally on board ever since we did this study, I'm always for playing Legos with my girls."