Svarovsky Receives $400,000 NSF Grant to Transform Engineering Education

A team led by Dr. Gina Svarovsky of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for STEM Education will conduct a three-year study to examine how engineering experiences can make a lasting impression on children and their families, ultimately having the potential to influence the children’s interests, school trajectories, and professional careers.

The National Science Foundation awarded $400,000 for the team to implement the Research Exploring Activity Characteristics and Heuristics for Early Childhood Engineering (REACH-ECE) study, which will examine the effectiveness of engineering activities for children between the ages of 3 and 5 and their families.

Svarovsky, an associate professor of the practice at the Center for STEM Education and director of the Institute for Educational Initiative’s Evaluation and Research group, will serve as the principal investigator for the project. She will collaborate with three co-principal investigators on the study: Scott Pattison, a research scientist at the Technical Education Research Centers (TERC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Amy Corbett and Maria Perdomo of Metropolitan Family Service (MFS), a community-based organization in Portland, Oregon.

“This is a huge honor and opportunity,” Svarovsky said. “It’s really encouraging that more and more people in the field are starting to realize the critical role of early childhood experiences in the development of STEM interests and identity.”

Svarovsky said the research has the potential to transform engineering education by developing educational products and conceptual frameworks that show how to effectively engage young learners and their caregivers in meaningful and productive engineering learning experiences. The study also focuses on low-income and Spanish-speaking families, engaging with communities that historically have less access to early science and engineering learning opportunities and remain persistently underrepresented in those fields.

“This represents an important step in understanding how we can prepare children for careers in STEM fields, particularly engineering,” said Dr. John Staud, the acting director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives. “Its attention to underrepresented communities lies at the heart of the Institute’s mission to improve the education of all children, particularly the disadvantaged.”

Svarovsky said she has long been interested in how young people, especially those from traditionally underrepresented populations, learn science and engineering in formal and informal environments. “The REACH-ECE project focuses very specifically on the activities that we’re developing for kids and their families,” she said. “What are the specific elements of these activities that make them more effective in cultivating this early STEM—and particularly engineering—interest and understanding?”

Learning engineering skills prepares children to interact with the world in a productive way, Svarovsky said.

“The REACH-ECE team believes that the engineering design process is an essential problem-solving skill for children to develop. As we navigate our current national and global challenges, they want to feel like they have the ability to solve problems and be agents of change,” she said. “Introducing kids to engineering at an early age is one way to do that. Developing creative solutions to problems can help children see that they can act on the world in a positive way and make a difference by thinking critically about the situation at hand. You can be innovative and thoughtful and make a difference when solving problems.”

The study will play a critical role in the Center for STEM Education’s efforts to translate research into action that helps all students engage and excel in the STEM disciplines.

“At the Center, we strongly believe that we need to think about STEM education not only as a workforce or economic argument, but as a way to leverage STEM as a force for good in the world,” Svarovsky said. “We see STEM education as a way to empower people, especially those who’ve been traditionally disenfranchised, become agents of change.”