Want to Increase Gender Diversity in Engineering? Provide Better Spatial Visualization and Engineering Graphics Training


If I told you that women account for only 19.3% of undergraduate engineering degrees, would you be surprised?

Probably not. The stats have been around for decades, and they all say the same thing — women don’t participate in STEM disciplines nearly as much as men, and they drop out at a higher rate. If you’re looking at minority women, those numbers fall even further, as they account for only 11.2% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering.

But what really contributes to this lack of female representation in engineering? And how can we change the statistics? To answer those questions — and solve the problems behind them — we have to start at the ground level, looking at the specific classes students take and investigate the improvements that organizations can make.

At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers Hannah Budinoff, Audrey Ford, and Sara McCains looked at how women’s tendency to have lower visual-spatial ability might be a contributing factor to their underrepresentation in engineering. They also offer some key ways for engineering departments to help students overcome this and still gain the essential spatial visualization skills they need.

The objective: Understand how gender, visual-spatial ability, effort, and course outcomes are related in engineering graphics courses

Introductory-level engineering graphics courses tend to create challenges for female students, who, on average, score lower on tests of spatial visualization. This means, for example, that they might have a more difficult time mentally rotating shapes. The Berkeley researchers wanted to investigate how women could still achieve positive course outcomes despite this ability gap. They hypothesized that:

  1. Women put more effort into studying for engineering graphics courses to account for their lower spatial visualization ability.
  2. Because women put in more effort, it reduces the gender gap in their course and exam outcomes.

To test their hypotheses, the researchers analyzed scores on homework, quizzes, and attendance, in addition to total course score. They then assessed the differences between students to quantify the importance of factors like effort and ability on performance.

READ MORE: Why do men have higher visual-spatial abilities? Social norms might be to blame.

Gathering data: Three semesters of freshman-level engineering graphics classes

The researchers gathered data from three semesters of E25: Visualization for Design, which focuses on the basics of engineering drawings, as well as teaching the use of AutoCAD. After removing data for students who submitted less than half of their assignments or didn’t take the final exam, the sample size included:

  • 308 total students
  • 232 men
  • 76 women

To analyze baseline ability, the professors administered the Purdue Spatial Visualization Tests: Visualization of Rotations (PSVT:R) in the first month of class. The students had a 20-minute time limit for a total of 30 points. Researchers also recorded: midterm exam score, final exam score, homework score, attendance, and average quiz score.

The results: How effort and ability contribute to course outcomes

The researchers explored the relationships between the course metrics, focusing on two factors. Factor one was related to ability, looking at performance on time-constrained exams that require ample visual-spatial ability. Factor two is considered the “effort factor,” focusing on activities with relaxed time constraints, like homework score, attendance, and quiz score.

The researchers found that ability was strongly correlated with PSVT:R score but effort didn’t have a strong correlation to the baseline test scores. Men had a statistically significant higher average PVST:R scores than women in two of the three semesters. Women, on average, also scored lower on the midterm and final exams than male students, and the results were statistically significant.

However, when looking at effort factor metrics, women spent more time on homework and put more effort into coursework, performing better on non-time constrained assignments than on time-constrained assignments. In fact, women outperformed their male peers in homework standard scores. But this increased effort did not fully reduce the gender gap in overall class performance.

In total, the Berkeley researchers found that spatial visualization ability does seem to have the biggest influence on test scores and class performance as a whole. They also explain that even if men and women have the same visual-spatial ability, they might not have the experience on time-constrained assignments like exams. Ultimately, female students’ lower exam scores greatly impacted their overall course grade, despite their higher performance on non-time constrained activities.

Application: Giving female students the tools and training they need to increase their confidence on time-constrained assignments

The research shows women generally outperform men on effort-related assignments that aren’t bound by time; whereas, men tend to have higher scores in ability-related assignments that are bound by time. The Berkeley researchers assert that this is the foundation for the gender gap in engineering graphics courses.

At the same time, the results indicate that putting in extra work — completing more problem sets, studying more, etc. — does improve performance for those students who are low visualizers. Because women are willing to invest more time and effort into their studies than men, they can really benefit from additional training sessions. Furthermore, emphasizing effort-based activities instead of exams can help improve spatial visualization abilities and self-efficacy, especially for female students.

So, what does this mean for you? If your engineering graphics classes are based entirely on a midterm and a final exam, for example, your female students will be much less likely to perform at the rate of your male students. However, if course scores are based on a sum of homework scores, attendance, quiz scores, and exams, you’ll likely see the gender gap narrow and even close. Finally, providing students with more problem sets and study tools will most likely increase overall scores, especially for female students, who are probably spending more time studying outside of class.

A tool to close the gender gap in spatial visualization and engineering graphics

SolidProfessor offers an online engineering graphics and spatial visualization course, comprises 76 short, bite-sized lessons and more than six hours of training. The course also offers a spatial visualization exam and an engineering graphics exam so the students can put their skills to the test in a controlled environment.

These additional training resources can greatly benefit your low visualizer students and help close the gender gap in engineering graphics courses. Plus, students can earn Technical Certificates in engineering graphics and spatial visualization that they can share on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles to show employers they have the appropriate skills in these areas.

READ MORE: Digital-age learning culture: Rethinking the traditional classroom

Kelly Mantick
About the Author

SolidProfessor academic content writer and amateur hula hooper