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Connecting Through Science

New Eberly College dean supports community outreach

Dr. Brenda Fredette says she always loved science. As a student, "everything about it was interesting. I liked learning about how things worked and connected to one another."

As the dean of Cal U's Eberly College of Science and Technology, Fredette is still focused on connections.

"For a university, community outreach is crucial," she says. "It connects the community with campus - but it also connects the campus to the community."

Fredette came to California this spring after more than 20 years at Medaille College, a small, private, liberal arts college in Buffalo, N.Y.

A biochemist, she was a professor and division head in Medaille's Division of Veterinary and Natural Sciences, where she taught organic and general chemistry. Then she stepped into administration, first as interim vice president for academic affairs and then as assistant vice president for student success.

Dr. Brenda Fredette, dean of the Eberly College of Science and Technology

Medaille serves many first-generation students from low-income families in Buffalo. Fredette, a first-generation college student herself, is an enthusiastic supporter of Say Yes Buffalo, a philanthropic organization that supports college scholarships for eligible city students.

And she poured her "heart and soul" into developing Science in Bloom, a four-year outreach program that connects middle-school students with Medaille for a series of open-inquiry science classes.

"These were kids who had never been on a college campus," she says, noting that more than eight in 10 Science in Bloom students are female.

The program brings them into Medaille's classrooms and labs, connects them with college-age mentors and welcomes their parents to campus.

"By the time these students are done, they believe they can do science -- and that can be huge, especially for young girls. And they feel like they belong. They feel like they own the campus."

"By the time these students are done, they believe they can do science — and that can be huge, especially for young girls."
Dr. Brenda Fredette

Confidence and careers

Fredette wants aspiring college students to bond with Cal U and its special mission in science and technology.

"Students, especially those from under-resourced school districts, sometimes come to college fearful of science," she says.

"It's important to help them and their families view science as something attainable. We need to make them aware of the opportunities in science -- the good jobs they can get with a bachelor's degree."

Associate professor Dr. Melissa Sovak, of the Department of Math, Computer Science and Information Systems, adds that math is another STEM field where students frequently lack confidence and career awareness.

"Many students feel they are not talented enough to enter a career path that requires a fair amount of mathematics," she says. "Others believe that a math degree limits them to teaching."

Sovak specializes in statistics and data science, a field where demand is growing faster than the number of skilled job candidates.

"It is vital that we create an environment where students feel they can thrive in math- and science-related fields, especially since we are seeing shortages in the workforce in these areas. Part of this includes making students aware of career options."

Learning by doing

Fredette's community-oriented outlook aligns with California's emphasis on active, applied education.

Cal U biology and geology students monitor water quality in local streams. Parks and recreation management classes help design community playgrounds. Seniors in the mechatronics engineering technology program work with area manufacturers to design, implement and test solutions to real-life problems. And the list goes on.

In the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, associate professor Dr. Sarah Meiss and her students are building a sustainable local food system. Students tend a vegetable garden and fruit orchard at SAI Farm, on Cal U's upper campus. In summer, they run a small farmers market on the Quad and distribute produce to subscribers who purchase "shares" in a family-owned farm.

Meiss collaborates with the Republic Food Enterprise Center, which works "to bridge the gap between farm and table." Based in Fayette County and supported by the USDA and the state Department of Agriculture, the center is actively building a network of family farms, food banks, distribution points and co-ops to bring fresh foods to local neighborhoods.

"Again, it's all about connecting to the community," Fredette says.

It's gratifying for college students to see the impact of their learning on an ecosystem, a town, an organization or a business. Community-based projects can strengthen a graduate's resume. Sometimes they kick off careers.

Open doors also encourage connection. Each year Cal U welcomes thousands of middle and high school students to STEM-focused events, such as robotics competitions and Science Olympiad. The teens learn while having fun, and they get a glimpse of campus life.

"We're helping them see what college looks like," Fredette says. "That's important for students, and for the University."

Head of the table

Although women have served as department chairs in the Eberly College of Science and Technology, Fredette is the college's first female dean.

"It sends a message that the contributions of women scientists are valued," says Dr. Kimberly Woznack. A professor and former chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics, she's the incoming chair of the American Chemical Society's Women Chemists Committee.

"Having a woman not just 'at the table' but literally 'at the head of the table' can empower other women to voice their concerns, opinions and perspectives. For female students, seeing this helps to widen their perspectives on future careers.

"There is a saying, 'If you can see it, you can be it,'" Woznack adds. "For all students, including young women, it's important to have role models they can identify with."

What does the future hold for the Eberly College? Like any good scientist, Fredette starts by asking questions and defining terms.

"I need to know what makes our students successful, and how we can contribute to that. And we need to define our collective vision -- for new programs, grants and community outreach." 

By Christine Kindl, communications director at Cal U

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