Even before she was born, the stepping stones in Siobhan Bredin’s path to becoming a teacher, an artist, and a community activist were set in place.
“Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1950s, my parents both knew they wanted to live someplace where there weren’t so many prejudices and negative influences,” she says. “The concept of responsibility for improving the world has been an emphasis within my family. The focus on social justice is strong in the Irish culture, and that was passed down to me by my ancestors.”
Bredin’s mother was a social worker and a painter, and her father, a scientist, professor, and musician. Bredin was born in England and raised in the United States, and in her work, she nods to the past while looking ahead to the future.
“I’ve always had elements of education and art as key parts of my life,” she says. “I knew somehow I’d combine those things in my work.”
Today, she is project director of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program at EDC, which uses new technologies to interest underserved students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. She’s also a community journalist for Cambridge Community Television.
What led to your first job in a women’s health clinic?
My mother helped to found one of the first women’s health clinics in Boston, in the days when things were really changing around access to health care, especially for women. She was involved in the women’s movement, and she was my mentor. She also pulled strings to get me a job at the clinic as a medical aide.
How did you become interested in learning technologies?
I was an early childhood teacher for many years, and I earned my master’s in education from Lesley University. Though I loved my work, I was excited about what was happening in the technology field, and I was looking to make a career change.
I didn’t have a technology background, but I learned things quickly. Eventually, I became a trainer for LexisNexis. So I went from teaching kindergarteners to read to training New York lawyers to use research software. Sometimes it was challenging, but a good teacher can handle anything. Then, I was a product manager for several software and online information companies before I came to EDC in 2000.
Who are the youth served by the ITEST program at EDC?
One of the goals for the ITEST program is to reach traditionally underserved populations and those who are underrepresented in STEM fields. For the National Science Foundation [the program’s funder], a huge goal is to reach students around the country who don’t have the same opportunities that more well-off students do. We are in 37 states conducting STEM activities for grades K–12 in urban, suburban, and rural locations.
Can you give an example of how you engage students who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in math and science?
One of our ITEST projects is conducting a course for middle school students and teachers that focuses on investigating genetics and markers for certain types of medical conditions. One of the really important elements of this program is a discussion of bioethics, examining the dimensions of topics such as embryonic stem cell research and human clinical trials. We hope participating in this kind of program will result in more young people becoming interested in pursuing science and technology careers.
What excites you about the future of this work?
The work of ITEST opens up opportunities for young people to pursue career possibilities in growth areas such as biotechnology. So one of the things that I was really pleased to see from the Obama administration was the focus on education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with specific mention of preparing young people for college and careers.
We hope to change students’ mindset from “I don’t really like science” to “Wow, this is really interesting. This can help people.” Our activities challenge the stereotype of scientists being geeks who work alone in the laboratory by showing the importance of work like this for the whole of society.