Pictured: LTR Aileen Simmonite, April Conroy, Ashlie Malcolm. Picture by Gillian Frampton/HIE.
This week marks one year since the UK’s first Norwegian style learning centres officially opened in the Highlands.
Newton Rooms are designed to inspire more young people to become interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and encourage them to study these subjects in school and beyond.
Organisations behind the project developed Newton Modules to match STEM sectors in the Highlands and Islands and complement the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence and Scottish STEM Strategy.
The Thurso and Fort William Newton Rooms launched in March and April 2019 respectively.
A third Newton Room is due to open in Dingwall this year and there is also Newton Module activity being delivered at An Lòchran at Inverness Campus.
Together they form part of a network being created in the Highlands by the Science Skills Academy, a partnership project led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and with £3m from the Scottish Government.
The funding is part of the £315 million Inverness and Highlands City Region Deal, which is funded by the Scottish and UK Governments and regional partners.
The project brings together key organisations including Highland Council, the University of the Highlands and Islands, Skills Development Scotland, High Life Highland and NHS Highland, all working together to demonstrate this model of STEM delivery in a large rural area.
Prior to its temporary closure as part of the COVID-19 spread prevention effort, almost 2,000 pupils had taken part in STEM activities delivered by the Thurso Newton Room based at North Highland College UHI.
Three quarters of the delivery was focused on day-long Newton Module activities in Thurso.
The rest was made up of shorter sessions for national STEM programmes such as the Association of Science and Discovery Centre’s ‘Destination Space’ programme, which were delivered over 29 sessions in 13 days.
The Science Skills Academy delivery team also hit the road in November 2019 to run activities at DYW North Highland’s ‘Step into STEM’ events for S2 school pupils and, over three days, welcoming 390 pupils from seven schools in Caithness and Sutherland.
Aileen Simmonite, STEM Engagement Officer at the Thurso Newton Room, said:
“It’s fantastic to watch children learn new skills and knowledge in a fun and interactive environment.
“Working in the Thurso Newton Room has been a fantastic experience and I can’t believe how much we achieved in such a short period of time.
“By bringing what pupils learn in the classroom into a practical scenario, it gives them the opportunity to experience how it could become a career for them in the future.
“I can’t wait to get them back again and continue to deliver STEM activities.”
In Lochaber, STEM activities were delivered to more than 1,000 young people since it opened, enabling pupils from schools around the area to improve their STEM learning experiences.
Ashlie Malcolm – STEM engagement officer in Fort William, said:
“I am delighted to be using my experience to show the children that there is a huge array of STEM based opportunities to be discovered and explored in their own communities.
“Science is an exciting and accessible career option for anyone who wishes to pursue it in local and rural areas.
“We want to help develop an interest in STEM and we are really looking forward to seeing and engaging with many more young people from Lochaber and beyond once we open up again.”
April Conroy, STEM engagement manager at HIE, said:
“While we are disappointed that the threat of COVID-19 has necessarily led to the temporary closure of the Newton Rooms, we are delighted that so many young people engaged in our STEM sessions over the past year.
“The Newton Rooms provide an accessible base for extracurricular STEM activities not only for young people but also their families and others in the local community as well as across the region.
“The centres help to expand the region’s STEM skills to meet the current and future needs of employers.
“We want the day at the Newton Room to be as memorable as a ‘science museum experience’ but with specific relevance to the industries that are set to grow here in the Highlands.
“We love working with universities and partners like the Aberdeen Science Centre and Glasgow Science Centre.
“We’ll encourage them to continue to bring their high-quality outreach activities to the region.
“Our goal, when working with out-of-area partners is to encourage them to reach all parts and to keep coming back.”
Although initially focused on the Highland region, due to City-Region Deal funding, the SSA hopes to expand its activity across all areas in the Highlands and Islands region.
The first Newton Room in Thurso was opened by Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead on 25 March 2019.
This was followed by the opening of the Newton Room at the Caol Youth Centre, Fort William on 2 April 2019 by Kate Forbes in her previous role as the Minister of Public Finance and Digital Economy.
Staff at the Science Skills Academy are currently working with the Highland Council on plans to deliver STEM activities that kids can complete at home, beginning at the start of term-time.