Spatial reasoning skills contribute to performance in many STEM fields.

For example, drawing sectional views of three-dimensional objects is an essential skill for engineering students. Considerable variation in spatial skills among students puts some at risk of underperformance in engineering classes. Fortunately, research shows that spatial skills improve with training and experience.

Traditional spatial visualization courses feature in-person instruction, with much of the problem-solving and model-building completed outside the classroom. Department of Engineering Education Assistant Professor Diana Bairaktarova changed this approach by developing a first-year engineering course that emphasizes hands-on learning with individual instruction time. She applies a student-centered approach to empower students to take ownership of their learning and their end-of-semester design creations.

A sample spatial reasoning problem showing a flattened cube in six sections. The middle four sections show a triangle with one section above and below the second triangle showing two circles. Below are illustrations of four possible cubes showing three faces with a varied configuration of triangles and circles showing. Which cube cannot be made based on the unfolded cube? Credit: 123 Test Spatial Reasoning Test (
A sample spatial reasoning problem. Which cube cannot be made based on the unfolded cube? Credit: 123 Test Spatial Reasoning Test (*

Using funding from a 4-VA Course Redesign Grant, Bairaktarova collaborated with Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies’ (TLOS) Learning Experience Design (LED) group to redesign ENGE 1354: Introduction to Spatial Visualization with the goal to increase class size without reducing the quality of instruction.  

The redesigned one-credit course integrates three pedagogical strategies — innovative classroom instruction, cognitive-based spatial visualization training, and manipulation of physical objects — into a hybrid instruction model that includes online video lectures and in-class engineering design graphics activities. Students come to class ready to ask questions and to practice what they have learned through short video lectures, freehand sketching exercises, computer-aided design (CAD) practice, and 3D printed object manipulation.

Nearly 700 students have completed the redesigned course, with more than 100 students in a section. One student shared, “I was also glad to have a class this semester that allowed me to create something. I came to engineering wanting to work with my hands and this class is as close as I have been able to get so far."

“Diana's intent was to redesign the course to take advantage of a blended learning approach in which she could spend less time lecturing to students and more time providing in-depth, personalized guidance during class time,” said Daron Williams, director of instructional design for LED. “The blended approach also offers advantages for students, in that they can access course materials (videos, assignments, etc.) at the time and location of their choosing and use their time with the professor to solidify and add depth to their learning.”

Students responded well to the course and showed measurable improvement in their spatial skills. Students commented that they appreciated having videos online explaining exactly how to sketch and how to use CAD software. Another student shared, ”Dr. Bairaktarova used interactive technology and was very energetic about what she was teaching and loved the material herself, which made it easier for us students to love the material. She helped everyone in class individually.”

Bairaktarova and her students have visited Narrows High School and the Wybe and Marietje Kroontje Health Care Center at Warm Hearth Village to talk about their experiences and to give each student or resident 3D printed ornaments. “It was great seeing students engage with the outreach activities, and I had fun 3D printing their designs,” said graduate assistant Sam Snyder. “It made my day hearing how excited [the recipients] were to hang the ornaments on their trees and share them with their loved ones.”

Examples of the 3D-printed ornaments students shared with residents of the Wybe and Marietje Kroontje Health Care Center at Warm Hearth Village. Ornament shapes include orange VT logos and Hokie Birds, white trees and snowflakes, and red roosters and toboggan hats.
Examples of the 3D-printed ornaments students shared with residents of the Wybe and Marietje Kroontje Health Care Center at Warm Hearth Village.

A pivotal piece of instruction for Bairaktarova is that students become confident in their spatial reasoning while also giving back to the community. “Having more practice time to spend with students individually in a large class enabled me to offer students the opportunity to enhance their spatial skills through the design of their own creations,” Bairaktarova shared, “which in return gave the students autonomy, confidence, and empowered them to teach others about engineering, applying their learning to a good cause, and practicing Ut Prosim from their very first semester at Virginia Tech.”

To learn more about Bairaktarova’s work, visit her lab website ( and watch for the upcoming journal article co-authored with Daron Williams, "Analysis of blended and multi-modal instruction and its effects on spatial visualization ability" in the Engineering Design Graphics Journal.

The TLOS LED group works with faculty and programs from all Virginia Tech colleges and schools. “Many faculty members use grants, such as the Design and Develop Awards, 4-VA Course Design, Pathways, and other Virginia Tech or external grants,” said Lujean Baab, senior director of LED, “but a professor isn’t required to have funding in order to use our instructional design and content development services and support.” For more information on these services, email or call 540-231-5004.

4-VA grants are managed by Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies, a unit of the Division of Information Technology. Visit the 4-VA grant program website for more information, or contact the 4-VA Deputy Coordinator, Christa Miller, at

*Answer: The second cube cannot be made from the unfolded cube. The two circles cannot be side by side.

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