Skip to content

Blog post

Promoting spatial ability skills through educational robotics: Are they equally effective for girls and boys?

José Antonio González-Calero Ramon Cózar

Promoting spatial ability skills through educational robotics: Are they equally effective for girls and boys?

Over the past few decades there has been a lively debate about the quality of educational research. Among extensive criticism, one frequently underlined factor is the low impact of research on educational processes. For instance, educational research is accused of being of little help to practitioners (Pring, 2000). Furthermore, education systems should face the challenges posed by a digital era in which about 47 per cent of jobs in the US are at risk of being automated within two decades (Frey & Osborne, 2017). As a consequence, educational programs will be required to provide a proactive response, and this, probably, would require interdisciplinary approaches. In this sense, Fabiola Gianotti, director-general of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), affirmed that,


‘we need to break the cultural silos. Too often people put science and the humanities, or science and the arts, in different silos. They are the highest expression of the curiosity and creativity of humanity’

(World Economic Forum, 2018, para. 9).

Addressing this context, we have conducted a study, recently published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, aimed at analysing the potential of educational robotics in developing third-grade primary students’ spatial ability while simultaneously presenting a cross-disciplinary sequence of activities transferable to actual classrooms. The study addresses two fundamental topics in the education arena: spatial ability and robotics. Spatial ability is a reliable predictor of mathematical achievement in all the educational stages (Gilligan, Flouri, & Farran, 2017). Educational robotics is one of the technologies with the greatest possibility for application in education in the short term (Freeman, Adams Becker, Cummins, Davis, & Hall Giesinger, 2017).

‘Previous research has found a remarkable gender gap in mental rotation ability, which may be associated with later differences between males and females in STEM disciplines. Our study analysed whether educational robotics could promote gains in mental rotation abilities differently for males and females.’

Our study focussed specifically on a specific facet of spatial ability: mental rotation, which is comprised of the ability to mentally rotate two- or three-dimensional objects in the mind. Any piece of research on mental rotation should take into consideration the fact that previous research has identified the existence of a remarkable gender gap in this domain (see for example Geiser, Lehmann, & Eid, 2008). What is most relevant from an educational perspective is the fact that this gap may be associated with later differences between males and females in STEM disciplines (see for example Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009). Consequently, our study tackled this issue by analysing whether educational robotics could promote learning gains in mental rotation abilities differently for males and females.

With this in mind, we carried out a quasi-experimental study in which the intervention consisted of having students complete map-reading tasks for a two-hour period. These activities allowed students to work mental rotation skills in a realistic context while working on curricular learning standards of different subjects (maths and social sciences). The control group completed the activities in a paper-and-pencil environment, following an approach frequently recommended in textbooks. By contrast, students in the experimental group solved the tasks by coding a small robot called Ozobot. After the short intervention, higher mental rotation scores were found for students from the experimental condition. However, a deeper analysis indicated an unequal impact of interventions depending on gender. In particular, gain scores in mental rotation were statistically greater for males who employed the robot in comparison with those who worked with paper and pencil, but not in the case of females. Although these results indicate that educational robotics may have a positive impact in developing important abilities in primary students, they also make researchers and teachers aware of the eventual emergence of gender gaps when implementing technology-based teaching sequences in classrooms. Future research should identify why these gender gaps occur and, from this, how to design experiences in which both boys and girls may fully benefit from educational robotics.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘The development of mental rotation abilities through robotics-based instruction: An experience mediated by gender’ by José Antonio González-Calero, Ramón Cózar, José Miguel Merino and Rafael Villena, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology. It is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Freeman, A., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., & Hall Giesinger, C. (2017). NMC/CoSN Horizon Report: 2017 K-12 Edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2017). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, 254–280.

Geiser, C., Lehmann, W., & Eid, M. (2008). A note on sex differences in mental rotation in different age groups. Intelligence, 36(6), 556–563.

Gilligan, K. A., Flouri, E., & Farran, E. K. (2017). The contribution of spatial ability to mathematics achievement in middle childhood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 163, 107–125.

Pring, R. (2000). Editorial Conclusion: A philosophical perspective. Oxford Review of Education, 26(3–4), 495–501.

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial Ability for STEM Domains: Aligning Over 50 Years of Cumulative Psychological Knowledge Solidifies Its Importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817–835.

World Economic Forum (2018). The future of education, according to experts at Davos. Retrieved from