"In March 1972, [psychologist Julian] Stanley rounded up 450 bright 12- to 14-year-olds from the Baltimore area and gave them the mathematics portion of the SAT. It was the first standardized academic 'talent search'. (Later, researchers included the verbal portion and other assessments.)
“The first big surprise was how many adolescents could figure out math problems that they hadn't encountered in their course work,” says developmental psychologist Daniel Keating, then a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. “The second surprise was how many of these young kids scored well above the admissions cut-off for many elite universities.”
Stanley hadn't envisioned SMPY as a multi-decade longitudinal study. But after the first follow-up survey, five years later, Benbow proposed extending the study to track subjects through their lives, adding cohorts and including assessments of interests, preferences, and occupational and other life accomplishments. The study's first four cohorts range from the top 3% to the top 0.01% in their SAT scores. The SMPY team added a fifth cohort of the leading mathematics and science graduate students in 1992 to test the generalizability of the talent-search model for identifying scientific potential.
“I don't know of any other study in the world that has given us such a comprehensive look at exactly how and why STEM talent develops,” says Christoph Perleth, a psychologist at the University of Rostock in Germany who studies intelligence and talent development.
As the data flowed in, it quickly became apparent that a one-size-fits-all approach to gifted education, and education in general, was inadequate.
“SMPY gave us the first large-sample basis for the field to move away from general intelligence toward assessments of specific cognitive abilities, interests and other factors,” says Rena Subotnik, who directs the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association in Washington DC.
In 1976, Stanley started to test his second cohort (a sample of 563 13-year-olds who scored in the top 0.5% on the SAT) on spatial ability — the capacity to understand and remember spatial relationships between objects5. Tests for spatial ability might include matching objects that are seen from different perspectives, determining which cross-section will result when an object is cut in certain ways, or estimating water levels on tilted bottles of various shapes. Stanley was curious about whether spatial ability might better predict educational and occupational outcomes than could measures of quantitative and verbal reasoning on their own.
Follow-up surveys — at ages 18, 23, 33 and 48 — backed up his hunch. A 2013 analysis5 found a correlation between the number of patents and peer-refereed publications that people had produced and their earlier scores on SATs and spatial-ability tests. The SAT tests jointly accounted for about 11% of the variance; spatial ability accounted for an additional 7.6%.
The findings, which dovetail with those of other recent studies, suggest that spatial ability plays a major part in creativity and technical innovation. “I think it may be the largest known untapped source of human potential,” says Lubinski, who adds that students who are only marginally impressive in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability often make exceptional engineers, architects and surgeons. “And yet, no admissions directors I know of are looking at this, and it's generally overlooked in school-based assessments.”"