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Gifted Lessons

Amy Shelton has spent the last decade understanding how people navigate, manipulate, perceive, visualize, and otherwise comprehend the space around them.

A cognitive psychologist, Shelton has studied whether people who are socially skilled are more capable of assuming the perspective of others. (They are.) She’s examined how the brains of people who take shortcuts respond differently during learning a navigational route than those belonging to people who adhere to the usual path. (The hippocampus of shortcut users is more active than the hippocampus of familiar path users during learning.) And she’s come to know that people aren’t strictly good or bad at spatial cognition; they just solve spatial problems with varying levels of flexibility. (Some spatial skills are even malleable, she says.)

Now she’s trying to figure out the ways spatial cognition is connected to children who are advanced learners and how all children can strengthen their spatial skills.

Shelton, an associate professor in psychological and brain sciences, was aware that proficiency in certain spatial abilities had been linked to success in such fields as organic chemistry and engineering among college students. But she had long wondered how her work in the lab could help younger students become better problem solvers and learners in the classroom. To find answers, she is collaborating with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), an academic center focused on identifying and enriching the education of academically advanced pre-college students through summer, online, and family programs.

“For me, CTY is a natural place to go,” she says. “These kids are advanced learners [in STEM] and now what we want to know is how important is spatial cognition in this population. If they have specific proficiencies, what’s the relationship between these proficiencies and their school curriculum?”

Elaine Tuttle Hansen, CTY’s executive director, couldn’t be happier. “Dr. Shelton’s work really speaks to the two sides of what we are trying to do at CTY—we’re trying to identify students with exceptional academic talent whose needs are not being met, and we are also trying to help them reach even higher levels of achievement.

“The potential for developing stronger spatial reasoning skills until now has been unexplored territory. This is a wonderful opportunity to think more broadly about intelligence and to connect the gifted and talented world with bigger questions about learning,” she says.

Shelton will soon be moving into a joint appointment with CTY and the university’s School of Education. She is hopeful that what she learns about spatial abilities among CTY students will tell her more about the spatial abilities of more typical learners. Perhaps this work will one day lead to new spatial literacy curricula designed to help maximize the spatial cognition of students so that they can be more successful in school.

“We already have an amazing capacity to learn,” she says. “I have this vision that with some very simple improvements, we could enhance that dramatically.”