Better together: Multi-sensory social intervention to improve spatial skills in primary education

Principal Supervisor: Dr Ori Ossmy (Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London)

Co-Supervisor: Prof Andrew Tolmie (Department of Psychology & Human Development, UCL Institute of Education)

Project Description

  • Spatial skills underlie how humans acquire, represent, organise, and navigate the environment; mentally manipulate objects; and communicate information about objects and environments to others, and therefore are fundamental building blocks of STEM. Previous research demonstrated the benefits of training children in verbal and numerical skills as a group, while such practice of spatial skills is absent. Although high variability and sex differences in children’s spatial skills and interest in science are well-established, previous training programs failed to address them. It was shown that low-achievers are more responsive when training relies on social interactions. This studentship builds on prior basic research to develop a novel social educational intervention to strengthen spatial skills and science-interest in Key-Stage 1 children, while focusing particularly on engaging girls and children from disadvantageous socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Moreover, by blending the physical with the virtual, technologies such as extended reality (XR) create unique multisensory environments with potential to deliver learning experiences that exceed outcomes from traditional teaching. Based on previous work, this studentship innovates an exceptional XR environment testing children in spatial tasks without tactile information, strengthening their mental spatial skills. Critically, although XR traditionally requires expensive technology, we will use affordable equipment to ensure the intervention is appropriate for use in primary schools.
  • The studentship has 3 specific aims: (1) Assessing the effects of a classroom-oriented training of spatial skills in primary-school children on their spatial, verbal, numerical, reasoning, and science-interest assessments at a later age; (2) Assessing the added value of training spatial skills in a group; (3) Assessing the effects of tactile information on spatial skills learning using XR.


  • This PhD studentship has the potential to improve primary education outcomes for children, create research and interventions that help to understand factors affecting educational opportunities and identify how educational disadvantage can be addressed.
  • By facilitating spatial skills from a young age, when spatial competence is developing and neuroplasticity is high, this project promise to pave the way to durable effects on STEM learning, support the efforts to solve the STEM crisis, and encourage families, educators, and policymakers to make spatial skills a key part of all discussions about STEM development.

Why should you apply?

  • You will be working as part of the world-first ToddlerLab team at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, (CBCD), Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck. The ToddlerLab is a brand-new facility equipped with cutting-edge technologies aimed at investigating the neurocognitive development in toddlers. You will have a key role in organising and setting up one of the first studies at the ToddlerLab. In collaboration with Dr Ossmy and Prof Tolmie, and additional project staff, you will play a central role in organising, managing and supporting testing as part of the project.
  • This studentship will give you the opportunity to engage in continuous professional development by improving or developing experimental skills in behavioral and educational testing in school-aged children, in managing and organising research projects, contributing to developmental and social psychology, and conducting research with state-of-the-art technology.


  • Graduates with a good first degree and/or master’s degree in psychology, education, neuroscience, or other relevant sciences. Applicants with an interest and aptitude for child development and quantitative methods are encouraged to apply. Knowledge, understanding or interest in educational processes or intervention would also be an advantage. 
  • You should be comfortable with handling and operating state-of-the-art technology, and with using code in a statistical (e.g. RStudio) or scripting (e.g. Matlab, Python) language.

Key References

1.  Ishikawa, T., and Newcombe, N.S. (2021). Why spatial is special in education, learning, and everyday activities. (Springer).

2.  Berkowicz, J., and Myers, A. (2017). Spatial skills: A neglected dimension of early STEM education.

3.  Ossmy, O., Han, D., Cheng, M., Kaplan, B.E., and Adolph, K.E. (2020). Look before you fit: The real-time planning cascade in children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 189, 104696.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Dr Ori Ossmy

Prof Andrew Tolmie

Ms Ida Akhtar

How to Apply

  • Please follow the online application process for the full-time Psychology PhD at Birkbeck , clearly stating your interest in the ‘Bloomsbury PhD Studentship’ with Dr Ossmy.
  • Please use the supporting statement in the application to outline why you are applying for this project, and why you are a suitable candidate for it. 

Queries about the PhD and training should be sent to Dr Ossmy.

Closing date for applications is:         
March 22nd, 2023