LINK Lab Research Spotlight: Dr. Heather Burte

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Dr. Heather Burte joined the LINK Research Lab in June 2018 after a post-doctoral position at Tufts University’s Spatial Cognition Lab. Her research interests include educational interventions and assessments, STEM education, spatial thinking, and individual differences:

“Spatial thinking is a fascinating topic because, while it often goes unnoticed, you can find it everywhere. I like to define spatial thinking as using spatial properties – location, distance, direction, shape, etc. – to solve problems or figure something out. For instance, people tend to associate spatial thinking with learning a route through a new neighborhood, pointing towards north, or your memory of where cities are in your state. But we also use our spatial thinking when we solve math problems, learn about molecules in organic chemistry, or understand the forces involved in throwing a ball. In fact, spatial thinking skills have been associated with success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

“Given the recent focus on the lack of students majoring in STEM fields, I’ve been investigating how training spatial skills could help students excel in STEM courses. In my post-doctoral research, I investigated how a spatial training program, called ‘Think3d!’, could support math learning in elementary students. We focused on elementary students because, if kids feel confident in learning math and science when they are young, they might be more interested in majoring in STEM when they’re older. So spatial thinking is connected to learning throughout our lives: from elementary school through to college, and even infants and toddlers are learning to be spatial thinkers!

“Another aspect of spatial cognition that captured my interest is how different we are in our spatial thinking. Some people always know where they are, while others always use their GPS – even to places they know really well. I co-authored a chapter on this topic in a recently published book. In my PhD work, I studied how people’s perception of their ‘sense of direction’ was related to how they compared the directions two photographers were facing in a familiar environment. We found that accuracy in comparing the photographers’ facing directions depended on how you thought about the environment (i.e., relative to large-scale landmarks or relative to your body), and the relationship of your body to the environment (i.e., seated or lying down). In essence, we found that people’s ability to relate standing in one place facing one direction to standing in another place and facing another direction (which we do when giving directions) is impacted by a number of factors. Which means that your sense of direction isn’t stable because it depends on situational factors like your environmental familiarity, where you are in the environment, etc.

“At the LINK Research Lab, I want contribute to work on personalized learning, connecting theory with the practical design of learning experiences (similar to Matt Crosslin), and learning analytics. I am interested in finding out how spatial thinking can connect more deeply with how people learn, and how we can better support a range of learners in STEM fields.”

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