The Building Blocks of STEM Act (Public Law 116-102; introduced as S 737, 116th Congress) authorizes the National Science Foundation (NSF), when awarding grants designed to research and increase the proportion of underrepresented populations participating in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and in computer science, to fund research to investigate factors that particularly influence the participation of female prekindergarten (pre-K) and elementary school-aged students in those fields. To encourage research specifically on pre-K and elementary education as it relates to STEM participation, the law also directs the NSF to consider the age distribution of STEM education research and development projects funded under the Discovery Research PreK–12 Program.
In awarding grants to increase participation of women in STEM fields, NSF can consider funding research that investigates:
- The role of teacher training and development in encouraging or discouraging female pre-K and elementary school students from participating in STEM activities;
- The roles of teachers, parents, aspects of the learning environment (such as textbooks, seating arrangements, and classroom culture), and informal and after-school STEM learning opportunities in shaping perceptions of STEM fields for those students;
- The types of STEM activities that encourage educational participation among those students; and
- The role of mentorship as it relates to STEM participation.
In awarding grants to research computer science education and computational thinking, NSF can consider funding projects that develop and test tools and models that:
- Offer training or professional development activities to teachers of female pre-K and elementary school students, especially in regards to bias faced by those students;
- Offer instruction on female-inclusive teaching practices for teaching computer science;
- Develop distance-learning programs for teachers or students;
- Develop curricular models for teaching computer science, particularly for female pre-K and elementary school students;
- Develop and offer female-inclusive computer science enrichment programs;
- Provide computer science mentors for female pre-K and elementary school students;
- Engage female pre-K and elementary school students and their guardians about difficulties faced by females in participating in computer science activities and the career benefits of engaging in those activities; or
- Acquaint female pre-K and elementary school students with computer science career options.
Research suggests that early exposure for all students to STEM fields and computer science leads to longer-term educational and cognitive benefits, such as increased reading comprehension, heightened spatial abilities, and positive attitudes toward science. According to the United Nations, female students in higher education comprise only 35% of all STEM students globally, and only 3% of those female students focus on information technology.