Nordic-inspired Newton Rooms will equip our experts of the future

WE talk a lot about the unspoiled beauty of the Highlands, the villages and crofts, the Neil Gunn museum and the kind of scenery that would make Walter Scott bite his pen in two. But the Highlands aren’t there as a kind of unspoiled garden sanctuary that we can forget about until we want to visit whenever we deem fit, like Louis the Sun King.

In our interconnected, fast-paced world, we need to equip our young folk with the skills they need to succeed, and for STEMD (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and Digital) subjects, that often requires access to top-of-the-range equipment. 

For folk in some of the more rural areas of Scotland, that can be a bit tricky. So we look to our neighbours and friends across the water for inspiration. 

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First published in The National, 19 July 2017

Originally conceived by the First Scandinavia foundation, there are more than 30 Newton Rooms scattered around Norway, all using high-tech equipment and facilities to get children and teens interested in STEMD skills.

Teachers and technological stakeholders have developed the Newton Scheme, with Newton Rooms including workstations, fully equipped labs and areas for demonstrations. Schools, local employers and the Newton Rooms work together to provide STEMD education in Norway’s remote areas, so it’s an interconnected, supported learning experience.

Now they’re coming to Scotland, thanks to £3 million from the Scottish Government to the Science Skills Academy (SSA), through the Inverness and Highland City-Region Deal. The SSA is a partnership project between Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the University of the Highlands and Islands, Skills Development Scotland and Highland Council. With an estimated 6000 jobs coming up in biosciences and renewable energy in the next five to eight years, we need to make sure that there’s a skilled workforce ready for them. By making the Highlands a hub of STEMD, employers will be encouraged to locate the jobs there, boosting the local economy and highlighting Scotland as a vibrant, forward-thinking player on the world stage.

The first Newton Room looks to be located in Caithness, in theory by the end of the year, while discussions are still under way for a Lochaber location. So, what can pupils expect?

The Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger took a year to build and equip their Newton Room, where all 15-year-old students eventually donned white coats and trooped in to study energy-related science for a couple of days in the school year.

Theory and practice go hand in hand, and in these facilities students can delve in and discover it all for themselves, albeit with a supervisor on hand to make sure nothing breaks or explodes. Over in Stavanger, the facility was a collaboration between the Petroleum Museum, the City of Stavanger and Statoil, an oil and gas company located in the city. The first year saw students undertake a “Newton module” in line with the national curriculum, where they would prepare at the school, come to the Newton Room for the practical session and more teaching, and then finish the work off back in the classroom. On behalf of everyone who remembers sitting bored on a bench, watching a teacher talk through a technique and wondering why we couldn’t do it ourselves, this sounds like the way forward for science classes. 

The Newton Rooms will support practical STEMD activity for schools and pupils alike, providing a top-of-the-range base for extracurricular projects. The SSA will operate from the Inverness campus of the University of Highlands and Islands, using existing UHI links and expertise to make sure that the Newton Rooms are tailored for the area.

I’ve talked before about the Regina project, a partnership programme that brings together experts from the Nordic Arctic and Scotland to address common problems faced by remote areas where the traditional industry is winding down. There’s a wealth of talent and experience in the Highlands and it’s great to see folk being able to put their skills to use in advising our neighbours on these common issues.

By investing more STEMD resources in remote areas of Scotland, we’ll be ensuring that we have a supply of ready-made experts able to export their knowledge across the world. These pilot Newton Rooms are just the beginning.