Testing the efficacy of 3D-printed geologic models as tools for fostering spatial visualization abilities

Joseph Gutierrez, Sinan Osman Akciz, Natalie Bursztyn, Kevin Nichols, John Thurmond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Geoscience educators seek new technologies and teaching materials that will successfully foster their students’ spatial visualization skills. As 3D-printing technology becomes more readily accessible, there are endless opportunities to create new instructional products that can help improve students’ spatial rotation, spatial manipulation, and visual penetrative ability early in their geoscience coursework. We developed a set of eight 3D-printed geologic block models that can easily be incorporated into any 3-hr long geologic structures module of a physical geology laboratory course. Our main objective was to investigate their efficacy in fostering all three spatial visualization abilities. Our test results, based on 583 undergraduate participants at California State University, Fullerton, indicate that access to the 3D-printed geologic block models had insignificant effects on the development of spatial manipulation or visual penetrative abilities and a statistically significant negative impact on students’ spatial rotation skill development. In-class observations suggest that pattern-matching instead of actively practicing spatial rotation may have hindered the development of this skill, however, observations also suggest that the blocks generated discourse and improved explanations of geologic structures between students. We recommend that future adopters of 3D-printed educational products redesign their laboratory exercises that require active engagement and sketching using the models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1320-1330
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Geology Review
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2023


We greatfully acknowledge detailed and constructive reviews by Nicolas Barth, an anonymous reviewer, and the editor, Robert Stern. We thank the teaching associates and students at California State University, Fullerton who volunteered to participate in this project. We also thank the California State University, Fullerton Office of Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness for supporting the purchase of the printing filaments for this project through their Assessment Inquiry Grant. Robert Wright and Torun Truong are thanked for helping us print our model sets.

FundersFunder number
California State University Stanislaus


    • 3D-printing
    • geological block models
    • spatial thinking
    • structural geology
    • visualization


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