This paper presents preliminary results from the first phase of a longitudinal study of design cognition and the effects of design education on design practice. The study aims to monitor the development of engineering design thinking through a three-year protocol study of control and experimental groups of engineering students. Using innovations in cognitive science that include ontologically-based coding of protocols and new methods of protocol analysis, the study is intended to characterize students’ cognitive development, identify differences over time, and relate those differences to students’ educational experiences. The first phase of this study focuses on assessing students’ spatial reasoning ability. Spatial reasoning is the ability to process and form ideas through spatial relationships among objects. It has been found to correlate strongly with the design ability associated with one’s ability to generate, conceptualize, and communicate solutions to problems. Sophomore students entering two different majors took four spatial reasoning tests (Paper Folding, Vandenberg, Mental Rotation, and Spatial Imagery Ability) that addressed their ability to visualize objects and mentally manipulate them over an ordered sequence of spatial transformations. The results of these tests are presented in this paper. Tests were conducted to determine statistical significance in order to evaluate whether a student’s spatial reasoning ability correlates with their choice of engineering major. The students’ test performances are also compared with existing data from other fields (e.g., architecture, visual arts, science, and humanities).

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