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PROVIDENCE, R.I.– Groundbreaking research led by Rhode Island College Assistant Professor of Psychology Benjamin Jee has discovered computer sketching as a potentially beneficial learning and assessment tool in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The project was funded by a National Science Foundation grant to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC).
The interdisciplinary project, “Drawing on Experience: How Domain Knowledge Is Reflected in Sketches of Scientific Structures and Processes,” showed that computer sketching software provides an accurate and real-time assessment of students’ knowledge of science topics, like plate tectonics and the Earth’s carbon and water cycles.
“This research builds on recent studies that show that sketching can enhance learning in STEM. Our results could be used to enhance learning and teaching by identifying a student’s level of understanding in domains like science and engineering through their drawing,” Jee said.
Using CogSketch, a computer sketch understanding system, Jee led a team of researchers from Northwestern University, Carleton College, Temple University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a series of experiments to analyze students’ drawings of geological and non-geological diagrams and photographs. Students with varying levels of geoscience knowledge were asked to create sketches on a tablet computer that was running CogSketch software.
In addition to viewing the content of the sketches, researchers were able to measure the order in which the drawings were made. This was possible because CogSketch recorded every drop of digital “ink” that a person put on the computer screen, as well as the labels and descriptions that they assigned to the various parts of their sketch.
The results showed that geoscience students sketched geological images more schematically than participants who had little knowledge of geoscience. Focused on structure over surface features, the geoscience students tended to sketch a diagram in cause-and-effect order.
For example, if given a diagram showing subduction of the Earth’s crust, geoscience students drew causally related events, such as ocean spreading and tectonic plates converging, in the order they would happen. Non-geoscience students drew the events out of order.
The research findings suggest that the differences in drawings were due to domain knowledge—understanding the objects and causal processes in the diagrams—rather than general drawing skills.
The research could inform understanding of STEM learning and contribute to the understanding of how scientific expertise develops.
“STEM education is vital for preparing all students for the challenges and careers of the future, including those in energy, food production and climate. Since those are issues that affect all of us, STEM education is important for everyone,” Jee said.
He added, “We found that sketching was driven not by general skill, but by knowledge and understanding of a specific subject matter,” Jee said. “This suggests that sketching can be used across many academic disciplines to tap into how students are learning.”
Jee’s research is in cognitive psychology, which he teaches at Rhode Island College along with courses in introductory psychology, research methods and perception. His research is focused on making discoveries about the nature of knowledge and concept acquisition and using those to enhance student learning. Jee holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University.