While those with verbal and quantitative strengths enjoy more traditional reading, writing, and mathematics classes, there are currently few opportunities in the traditional high school to discover spatial strengths and interests. Instead, students who might benefit from hands-on, technical material must find an outlet on their own time, or just wait until their post-secondary education. And, in the worst case, they may drop out of the educational system altogether.
The second source of data reviewed by Wai came from a large-scale talent search. Talent searches, similar to Terman's project, use psychometric assessments to identify youths with exceptional talents, usually in quantitative or verbal ability, that might not be recognized in a traditional classroom setting. One of the goals of modern talent searches is to provide the additional educational opportunities and experiences needed by these students for optimal development. Adolescents with exceptionally high quantitative ability, for example, can benefit greatly by additional instruction or an accelerated mathematics curriculum that provides them with developmentally appropriate material, such as advanced calculus rather than algebra. When youths identified by talent searchs are appropriately accelerated according to their intellectual strengths, they report higher satisfaction with their education as adults.
The talent search data reviewed by Wai was collected from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), a talent search initiated at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1970s. SMPY identified intellectually precocious adolescents at or before age 13 based on scores on the quantitative and verbal subtests of the SAT. After identification, many of these same adolescents were administered measures of spatial ability. Although these participants were selected based on their exceptional quantitative and verbal ability, there was wide variability in the spatial abilities within the sample.
These participants have now been followed for over 25 years, and the variability in spatial abilities was found to be predictive of educational and occupational outcomes, even after accounting for verbal and quantitative abilities. Similar to the subjects from Project Talent, the SMPY participants who earned bachelors, Master's, and doctoral degrees in science and engineering fields had especially strong spatial abilities compared to the rest of the sample. The same trend was found among those who had occupations in these fields at age 33.
Due to the neglect of spatial ability in school curricula, traditional standardized assessments, and in national talent searches, those with relative spatial strengths across the entire range of ability constitute an under-served population with potential to bolster to the current scientific and technical workforce. Alvarez and Shockley found their way despite being missed by the Terman search, and each had considerable impact on technology in the last century. But how many more Alvarezes and Shockleys have we missed? Given the potential of scientific innovations to improve almost all aspects of modern life, missing just one is probably one too many.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com