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Sheryl Sorby has dedicated her career to helping students develop spatial skills

July 19, 2021

Sheryl Sorby is a professor of engineering education at the University of Cincinnati and a Professor Emerita of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Technological University.

Her research has focused on spatial skills and visualization (the ability to mentally manipulate 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional figures), which are crucial to success in engineering. 

“Spatial skills are learned skills, but they are rarely formally taught, so it’s hit or miss if someone has them when entering college, and more often than not, it’s women that don’t have them, so that they struggle with introductory engineering or graphics courses,” says Sorby. “It’s not a question of aptitude, it’s a question of opportunity. Boys are more likely than girls to play with Legos as children, or to use 3D computer games, or to take a shop class, and it’s those types of activities that provide practice with taking things apart and fitting them back together—the kinds of activities that help a person develop 3-D spatial skills.”

Sorby, along with Dr. Beverly J. Baartmans, received her first grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1993 to develop a spatial visualization course for engineering students, which has since been updated to include multimedia software and a workbook in order to better engage students in active learning. “In studies going back to that first grant, research has shown that the course is really impactful for retaining and graduating women,” says Sorby. 

The program has been so successful that colleges of engineering around the country use the program to improve retention and graduation rates. She received the Betty Vetter award for Research on Women in Engineering through the Women in Engineering Pro-Active Network (WEPAN) for her work in improving the 3-D spatial skills of engineering students.

Sorby is continuing her spatial skills research. A current grant she’s working on investigates the relationship between improved spatial skills and improved grades and retention rates. She also just submitted a proposal to examine the link between spatial skills and technical communication. As founder and CEO of Higher Education Services, an educational consulting firm working to advance spatial research and training worldwide, she’s currently collaborating on projects in Ireland and Australia. 

She also served as program director in the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education, dealing with all aspects of NSF proposals, from writing solicitations to making recommendations about which submissions should be funded, to community building through proposal writing workshops. “It was a great experience that gave me a broader, more national view of engineering education.”

Sorby also makes time to give back to the engineering community. She has been a member of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) since 1991 and has served the Society in various capacities. In 2009 she was inducted as a Fellow of ASEE, 2011 she received the Society’s Sharon Keillor award as an outstanding female engineering educator, and she’s just finishing up a year as ASEE president.

During her tenure, ASEE established various task forces, one of which focused on reenvisioning the engineering curriculum, which was largely built over fifty years ago and has only been tinkered with since. Sorby wanted to know what could be done if the curriculum was designed from scratch. The task force has a plan for a final report, and there have been initial conversations about collaborating with the National Academy of Engineering on a report called “The Engineer of 2050.” 

“We’ve been trying to increase diversity in engineering for 50 years, and the curriculum isn’t particularly inviting or appealing,” she says. “We’re having those important conversations now about what we’re doing and what we can change in the future, so that this project can have a large impact in the long run.”

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