Spatial ability and the STEM majors

Spatial ability and the STEM majors: Where do females with high spatial ability go?
Linda S. Houser-Marko, PhD

Poster presented to the Association for Psychological Science 28th Annual Convention in Chicago, May 26-29, 2016

Spatial ability appears to be an important aspect of working in and studying the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Each field of STEM has a slightly different profile pattern of numerical, verbal, and spatial abilities.

Specific STEM majors have different profiles of numerical, verbal, and spatial abilities. Spatial ability was high for all STEM majors, with the highest levels for engineering and math majors. Females with high spatial ability go into physical science, engineering, and computer science at lower than expected rates, relative to their abilities.


The sample was 11,502 18 to 24 year olds who had tested with the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation for the purpose of vocational guidance. From our database, we selected those who reported their college major. There were 54% males and 46% females. The mean and median of age was 21 years old.

Of the overall sample, 16% indicated that they had chosen a STEM major. There were 5.7% in biological sciences, 1.7% in physical sciences, 2.2% in computer science, 5.5% in engineering, and 1.1% in math. Of the STEM majors, 31% were female.

Numerical ability: A combined score of two numerical tests (Number Series and Number Facility). Test reliabilities were .87 and .86.
Spatial ability: a combined score of two spatial tests (Paper Folding and Wiggly Block). Test reliabilities were .82 and .77.
Verbal ability: a test of vocabulary knowledge. Test reliability was .96.
Our first analytical approach started with the majors, and determined the profile patterns from those, assuming that the aptitudes of the students, on average, “fit” with the major that they had chosen.

STEM Majors
What are the aptitude patterns, specifically numerical, verbal, and spatial ability, for STEM majors? We found that for biological, physical, and computer sciences, numerical and verbal abilities were “symmetrical,” or in other words, about equally high within the person. Engineering showed asymmetry in which numerical aptitude was higher than verbal aptitude. Spatial ability had a unique pattern, in which math majors had the highest levels, followed by physical science and engineering, followed by biology and computer science.

bar graph of Z scores by Stem major

Comparing Males and Females
We looked at males and females specifically, to see if there were differences in the strengths of students in the STEM majors.

bar graph of Z scores by major and gender

For engineering and math majors specifically, females showed the asymmetry of numerical aptitude being higher than verbal abilities, while male math majors had symmetrical (and high) numerical and verbal aptitudes. The levels of spatial ability for male and female engineering students were about the same.

Though the computer science students might look somewhat average on their numerical and verbal abilities, their spatial abilities were above average.

Select Students with High Spatial and High Numerical Ability
What majors do they go into?

Second, we wanted to look more closely at spatial ability as it related to college major choice, particularly for females and males with similar levels of spatial and numerical ability. We selected participants who had high spatial ability and moderately high numerical ability from the sample.

Overall for those selected that were high in spatial ability and moderately high in numerical (n = 3041), 28% were in STEM.

percent of high ability students by major

Being aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses can help a person make better decisions. Knowing the important role of spatial ability in the STEM fields might help to increase interest in those fields. Future projects will look in more depth into the major choices of students who tested before they entered college to see if learning about spatial ability influenced them to choose STEM majors more often. This research suggests that early exposure to STEM programs might positively impact students by introducing them to fields that they have the aptitudes for, but might not otherwise have sought out .