Personal reflection on a White House visit: Inspiring efforts around early learning, plus some pretty cool sugar packets

Sioson Hyman
Michelle Sioson Hyman

In partnership with the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and the Invest in US initiative, the White House hosted an event in April to highlight the importance of promoting active science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning for our youngest children. The event also celebrated a broad range of public- and private-sector leaders committed to promoting STEM learning across the country, and I was honored to represent SVCF at the daylong gathering. 

SVCF's Center for Early Learning has recently committed to conducting a survey of parents, child care providers, teachers and librarians to gauge how technology and digital media is being used by young children in the Silicon Valley region. Our survey effort was also highlighted at the symposium, another honor.  Here’s an up-close-and-personal account of my trip to the White House.

Wednesday, April 20

My first meeting wasn’t until 2 p.m., so I took a walk around my hotel, which was a few blocks from the White House. As I strolled in my jeans, I realized I was far from the Silicon Valley tech culture of jeans and hoodies, and made a mental note to put on a dress and heels for the reception later that day.

In the afternoon I met with our partners at New America and from Joan Ganz Cooney Center to work on the teacher survey for our upcoming early learning tech study. Designing a survey for child care providers and teachers of children birth through age 8 on the use of early learning technology and media takes a dream team of researchers and experts, and I am happy to say that CEL is definitely working with a dream team – Lisa Guernsey, Amanda Lenhart, Michael Levine, and Vicky Rideout.

White House visit
Michelle Sioson Hyman with Michael Levine, executive director of Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and Libby Doggett, early learning director at the U.S. Department of Education.

After our meeting, we headed to the welcome reception, where Russ Shilling, director of STEM at the U.S. Department of Education, delivered this key message: The fields of STEM education and early learning must identify the research gaps and find ways to conduct that research. I was proud that CEL is conducting a local study to help fill in the gaps around the use of technology with young children birth through age 8.

On a personal note, I met the producer of the PBS show Ready Jet Go!, a new animated series designed to teach young kids about astronomy, technology, the scientific method and earth science. It’s my 7-year old’s favorite show, and the producer said she would get me a personalized picture of my daughter’s favorite character saying, “hello.” My going away on a business trip had some perks for my kids after all.

My friend and colleague Rafael Lopez was gracious enough to meet up with me for a quick dinner. Rafael was the first boss I had after I finished graduate school, and he set the bar high. He is now Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and I couldn’t be more proud to know him. Because of his mentorship and the leadership and passion he instilled in me over a decade ago, I am still fighting the good fight for young children.

Thursday, April 21

White House 2I made it through White House security by 7:45 a.m., and as I walked through the halls, I could only imagine the conversations and deals that had occurred behind those doors and in those rooms. I was so honored and excited to be at the White House for a meeting that I even took pictures of the napkins and sugar packets (at right). 

The agenda was packed with panels, flash-panels and small group discussions about research, funding and messaging. All of them focused on how we, as a country, can and should give our youngest children opportunities to engage in science, technology, engineering and math to ensure the United States returns to being a leader in STEM fields. As U.S. Secretary of Education John King told attendees, “Part of how we close achievement and diversity gaps in STEM fields is by starting early.”

More on the symposium:

At the symposium, more than 200 public and private initiatives announced commitments to help promote early STEM. A White House fact sheet described these commitments as helping to move the country toward achieving the following five goals:   

  1. Building the research base about what works in early STEM learning, including promising practices, interventions, and teaching strategies;
  2. Supporting practitioners, including child care providers, home visitors, preschool teachers, and elementary school teachers, with STEM pedagogy and content knowledge;
  3. Supporting children and families in fostering STEM at home;
  4. Strategies and partnerships that foster STEM learning in informal settings (e.g., museums, libraries, zoos, media, toys); and 
  5. Programs and partnerships that support children from low-income families in rural, tribal and urban settings and children who may have less access to STEM experiences and education including girls, children of color, children with disabilities, children who are dual language learners, and homeless children.

The symposium was also an occasion for the U.S. Department of Education, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to call for public comment on a forthcoming technology policy statement. Russ Shilling of the education department said he sees this as a key moment for building consensus across the field about appropriate ways to use technologies in early learning. 

My experience at the White House was energizing and inspiring, especially as our CEL team begins work to research local use of technology and digital media among young children. For more information on that effort, contact me at