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University of the Highlands and Islands outreach project praised for helping fill STEM skills gap


By Calum MacLeod

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The University of the Highlands and Islands has been engaging the next generation of scientists, technicians and engineers with a series of schools events.
The University of the Highlands and Islands has been engaging the next generation of scientists, technicians and engineers with a series of schools events.

An independent report has found that an outreach programme from the University of the Highlands and Islands has helped young people across the Highlands gain better access to vital education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The university's STEM project, which has received more than £550,000 from renewable energy developer SSE Renewables, was recently evaluated by the specialist economic development and regeneration consultancy, Ekosgen.

Ekosgen found that the outreach approach adopted by the university has helped to lower barriers to engagement in STEM education and training and generated more peer-to-peer knowledge.

Dawne Bloodworth, the University's STEM development manager said: "Building skills in science, technology, engineering and maths is vital to the future of the Highland economy, particularly as the number of occupations in this field are predicted to grow and as the future of work changes.

"However, STEM professions often experience skills gaps because the number of students choosing STEM programmes does not meet the demands of the sector. Students can see science, technology and maths as ‘hard' subjects, so educators have a challenge in inspiring young people to take up STEM subjects.

"As an institution that provides work-based learning, college and university level education, we've been able to take a holistic approach to promoting STEM which has allowed us to address the whole education pipeline.

"We're pleased that Ekosgen's report has proven the university has achieved effective change; to increase awareness, to influence aspirations and to tackle the lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and rurality in STEM professions."

Former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell chairs the SSE Renewables' Highland Sustainable Development Fund panel.
Former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell chairs the SSE Renewables' Highland Sustainable Development Fund panel.

Former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell, chairman of the SSE Renewables' Highland Sustainable Development Fund panel, welcomed the report's findings and praised the university's approach.

"Our Sustainable Development Fund has supported the university's outreach programme for six years," he said.

"This partnership has enabled them to develop outreach activities across the Highlands, whilst building teacher confidence when delivering STEM activities.

"It is fantastic to support a project aligned with the fund's key theme of creating opportunities for education and employment through developing skills.

"With around 75 per cent of Highland Council schools participating in the STEM project and more than 600 teachers and an estimated 16,000 pupils taking part, we are delighted that the evaluation has shown what a significant impact the work has had in the region. We are hopeful that the legacy from the project will continue for many years to come."

Councillor John Finlayson, who chairs Highland Council’s education committee, said: “The STEM outreach project was a huge success in Highland. The in-depth engagement with schools that has taken place was I know well received by teachers and pupils alike and I believe it has helped to build STEM capacity and confidence amongst students and teachers across all areas of Highland. I am sure everyone is really appreciative of the funding from the SSE Renewables’ Highland Sustainable Development Fund which has supported this great work.”

Ekosgen's report found that the University of the Highlands and Islands' mode of delivering the STEM programme was well-suited to the region, particularly among rural and remote schools, and that it was able to continue (in a somewhat reduced capacity) throughout the coronavirus pandemic.


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