The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2014 | Spatial Cognition As A Contributor To The Development Of Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics (Stem) Skills
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Spatial Cognition As A Contributor To The Development Of Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics (STEM) Skills

Principal Supervisor: Dr. Emily Farran (Institute of Education)

Co- Supervisor: Professor Michael Thomas (Birkbeck)

Spatial ability involves perceiving the location and dimension of objects and their relationships to one another; it is core to everyday living (giving directions, understanding diagrams, packing a bag). Spatial ability in childhood is a predictor of expertise in adulthood in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects (Wai et al., 2009). This proposal focuses on the development and training of spatial thinking and specifically how this impacts mathematical competence in children. A powerful tool in enabling spatial thinking to develop, which will be used in this studentship, is spatial language. This is a novel approach to training spatial thinking. In this studentship, you will first establish the developmental relations across space and mathematics cognitive skills in a cross-sectional sample of children between 5 and 10 years. You will then develop tasks which train or prime spatial thinking in children and explore the impact of these on small scale spatial cognition, as well as large scale spatial cognition (i.e. navigation, using our established virtual reality set-up). You will also determine the extent to which training spatial abilities transfers to improvment on number and maths tasks. This research is important if we are to push forward our understanding of the development of spatial cognition, the effects of exposure to spatial information, and how this impacts mathematical skills.

For details of the full proposal, please email Emily Farran (

Candidate requirements

Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK Honours Degree in Psychology or a related discipline at 2:1 level or equivalent.

The studentship will be located within a unique multidisciplinary setting. The PhD student will have access to world-class expertise in the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience, giving a broad context to the proposed research. There will be the opportunity to benefit from behavioural data collection within an applied setting (IoE), as well as to situating the research in the context of developmental cognitive neuroscience (Birkbeck). The student will be exposed to an inter-disciplinary research environment, integrating a range of methodologies, including behavioural work, neuroimaging techniques, computational modelling, and genetics. The student will be part of Dr Farran’s Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability lab (CoGDeV Lab) as well as Prof. Thomas’s Developmental Neurocognition Laboratory (DNL). These groups will provide supportive forums for the development of the student’s research (DNL meets weekly in term time, CoGDeV Lab runs a fortnightly lab meeting).

Key References

  1. Berressem, J. (2011, May 20th). STEM - Getting to the root of the STEM problem, Times Education Supplement, UK
  2. Farran, E.K., Courbois, Y., Van Herwegen, J., Blades, M. (2012). How useful are landmarks when learning a route in a virtual environment? Evidence from typical development and Williams syndrome. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 111, 571-586.
  3. Szechter, L. E., & Liben, L. S. (2004). Parental guidance in preschoolers' understanding of spatial-graphic representations. Child Development, 75(3), 869-885.
  4. Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2012, June 4). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin.  )

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor: Dr Emily Farran,,

Co- Supervisor: Professor Michael Thomas,,

Further information about PhDs at IoE is available from:

How to apply

Please do NOT apply for this scholarship via UKPASS, but on the Bloomsbury application form available from Alison Freeman: 

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:

Alison Freeman, Bloomsbury DTC Co-ordinator, Doctoral School, Institute of Education

The required supporting documentation is as follows:

  • A personal statement
  • Covering letter and CV
  • Transcripts of your undergraduate and (where applicable) postgraduate qualifications
  • Two confidential references
  • A piece of academic writing such as an essay, dissertation or article

Closing date for applications is 14th March 2014