Advance Copy: Dr. Gina Navoa Svarovsky

Welcome to Advance Copy, a look at the people, perspectives, and scholarship of the Institute for Educational Initiatives, home to the University of Notre Dame’s initiatives advancing its long-standing commitment to the future of K-12 schools.


Gina Navoa Svarovsky

Just Published:

Understanding Early Childhood Engineering Interest Development as a Family-Level Systems Phenomenon: Findings from the Head Start on Engineering Project in the Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), available at:

Hails from:

Wood Dale, IL


Center for STEM Education


Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin
M.S. in Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin
M.Ed., University of Notre Dame
B.S. in Chemical Engineering, University of Notre Dame


Educational Psychology

Favorite place on the Notre Dame campus:

Holy Cross Chapel in Stinson-Remick Hall. I’ve taught or led professional development in Stinson-Remick every year since 2014, and this breathtakingly beautiful chapel – believed to be the only chapel inside an engineering building within a university - is very special to me.

What drew you to work at Notre Dame?

The community at the IEI and ACE—the people I would get a chance to work with every day—particularly in the Center for STEM Education. And just the mission of what we’re doing: to advance education for all kids.

Why this research project? Why now?

Increasingly, over the past few decades, people have been looking at how to get kids—at younger and younger ages—interested in STEM. A lot of the time people are doing that because they want people to become interested in STEM careers. There’s another camp that believes STEM education can empower people to make better decisions and engage in more innovative problem-solving in their lives overall. It doesn’t have to be totally, 100-percent focused on whether they ultimately become scientists and engineers.

Thinking about STEM at younger and younger ages, Head Start works with kids from zero to five—and we’re focusing on kids between three and five—trying to help them start to develop those engineering habits of mind at a really young age. We’re trying to understand what helps kids—and ultimately, their families—become more interested in engineering. We really feel that’s a way to understand problem-solving in their everyday lives.

The Head Start on Engineering project is very much a deep collaboration. Dr. Scott Pattison, a Research Scientist at TERC, is the principal investigator and I am the Co-PI. This project has been going on since 2014 and is built on existing collaborative partnerships that Scott had developed with Mount Hood Community College Head Start and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon.

The goal of this paper that we just published, which is based on data from our initial study, is really looking at interest development in STEM – and engineering in particular – as a family-level phenomenon, not just a “single kid phenomenon.” Interest tends to be something that’s developed over time, through a variety of experiences and interactions; if we really want to understand how that happens for children, we can’t look at interest development as an isolated event within a vacuum. Certainly, there’s a growing body of research out there that shows if we can get the whole family engaged in learning, it can lead to really rich and meaningful experiences for kids, and those experiences can continue to shape and impact them as they move through their educational trajectories. What we are trying to do as part of our work is to figure that system out a little better, so that we can help educators who are thinking about designing these types of family learning opportunities – especially connected to engineering and STEM overall.

What first drew you to study the STEM disciplines?

Growing up in an immigrant household, we often would build or make things at home that we needed. My dad built a lot of furniture for our house – shelves, chairs, benches, tables, stepstools, etc. He would always have at least one of the three of us kids helping him out as he did these projects, holding planks as he sawed them with a handsaw, bringing him the hammer, holding things steady as he marked them for cutting or nailing. And sometimes he’d talk about his ideas, how he figured out how to build something better than last time, or what challenge or problem he was trying to figure out. My mom, if we didn’t have something we needed, she would sew it or make it. That was the environment I grew up in. if you didn’t have something, you thought about how you could design something and you tried to make it as good as you could. That set the stage for me to get into engineering.

I really didn’t know what engineering was until college, but once I learned more about the design cycle and how it could integrate math, science, and creative problem solving, it resonated very deeply with me and reminded me of how we used to innovate at home. I was hooked!

How did your interest in engineering education begin?

After finishing up my engineering degree at Notre Dame, I was an ACE teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida. While I was there, that was the first time that I could really integrate the discipline of engineering and education. I was teaching high school physics, and I had my students engage in a semester long roller coaster engineering design project. In all honesty, as a first-year teacher, I was searching for a way to keep my seniors motivated. I drew on what I knew – which was, of course, engineering. The whole project felt like a gamble – and I learned a ton that first year! One of the most comical lessons I’ll never forget was the need to put some size restrictions on the physical models students built to demonstrate that their physics calculations actually worked. Some students went a little overboard and couldn’t get their projects through the door! But that experience cemented for me how much potential engineering had for authentically and meaningfully engaging students. It was really good productive struggle for them, trying to connect what they were seeing in physics class and what they were seeing in math class.

Why is this area of study – early childhood engineering education – important to you?

For me, it starts with the research around the development of STEM interest and STEM identity. The reason why these two things are so important is they are additional and essential pieces to the puzzle in terms of why someone might choose to pursue STEM. Moving beyond the nuts and bolts of physics and math and the content and practice of the STEM disciplines, developing an interest in STEM can motivate young people to stick with it when things get really tricky and difficult. Identity is also super important - there is a lot of work on that points to kids thinking, “I can’t become something that I don’t see.” This can lead to things like girls thinking they can’t become scientists and engineers if they don’t see other women who are scientists and engineers. Young people of color can’t see themselves becoming that if they don’t see themselves reflected in the profession.

The Head Start on Engineering study looks at how some of the early underpinnings of long-term interest and identity can be developed for very young kids and their families. There are certainly studies that have shown that by kindergarten kids are already identifying STEM as a gender topic: girls will not engage as much saying that’s for boys. In terms of gender, those distinctions are starting really young. So, we are trying to think about how we can provide experiences for kids, particularly those who come from non-dominant populations and traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM. How do we help them develop more positive experiences with STEM and engineering in particular, so that they might become more interested in it and start to see themselves as people who can participate in STEM? In addition, we think about how we can better support the kids’ parents and caregivers in building their own interest and identity around STEM, so that ultimately, we can support them in facilitating more interaction and engagement around STEM with their kids.

What advice would you give to someone who is just beginning a career within the STEM education fields?

First, I’d say you really have to think about what your professional non-negotiables are, and where can you bend and be flexible. For me, after ACE, my non-negotiables were always around thinking about engineering education, working with kids from non-dominant groups, and working towards equity. While the composition of my projects and work looks very different across my time in grad school, at the museum, and now here, I’ve been so fortunate to keep these three areas as essential parts of my work.

Second, to the extent possible, try to work and collaborate with people who you truly enjoy and bring you LIFE. The best professional collaborations I have are with kind and generous people who are also tremendously smart and incredibly funny.

Third, be open to non-traditional paths and have faith that you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be, right at the time when you’re supposed to be there. My path was certainly unorthodox, but I also think it was the best possible trajectory for me. There were many times when I didn’t totally know what was going to happen next, or where some opportunities – like ACE, or my time at the Science Museum! – would lead. It was definitely nerve-wracking at times. But that’s when the Holy Spirit really does its best work, you know?