The engineers at the University of California, San Diego, report their app showed promise during testing in a summer program for high school students and undergraduates at the university's Jacobs School of Engineering.
"As an engineer I visualize things before I build them," Nate Delson, a lecturer in mechanical engineering, said. "I visualize them in 3D, I visualize them in 2D, and I imagine what they're going to look like and how they will work before I build them.
"This process is called spatial visualization. Many kids learn spatial visualization skills by playing with construction toys, such as Legos, growing up. But some do not and it's these students [who] can struggle with technical subjects in college."
The app includes a sketching feature that allows users to draw 3D shapes on a 2D grid.
"The physical act of sketching is important for learning spatial visualization," Delson said.
The app offers an immediate feedback feature that tells users whether their sketches are correct; if they are not, users can peek at the solution or try again on their own.
"It is like having a private tutor sitting right next to you," Delson said.
Previous studies have shown students who improve their skills at visualizing objects in 3D got better grades in math, physics and computer sciences and were less likely to drop out of those majors, the researchers said.