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Lessons From the Outer Hebrides

Angus Rogers

In April 2022, Maria Bell took to the skies to make the 250 mile trip from her home in Shetland to the picturesque town of Stornoway in Scotland’s stunning Western Isles. Let's take a look at what she learnt along the way.

Lessons From the Outer Hebrides

As the co-founder of Silicon Croft - an education project dedicated to supporting the integration of digital skills across the curriculum - Maria recently visited the Outer Hebrides as part of an ongoing project to improve access to tech education in rural and underserved Scottish communities.

As one of the seven ‘Embers’ from our Tech Embers programme, Maria organised and delivered a number of in-person events during her 4-night trip — involving a combination of coffees with local business owners, meetings with key stakeholders from local education authorities, and crucially, sessions with teachers in schools.

The ultimate goal of the trip was to ‘sow the seeds’ for something that Mesomorphic (the team that founded Silicon Croft) could cultivate and grow into a self-sustaining initiative. Practically speaking, this involved building relationships with schools that are keen to take part in the programme, identifying local ‘champions’ who want to help make the programme a success, and getting a feel for the local challenges that are difficult to understand or see from a distance.

Maria’s Key Takeaways

Besides a newfound obsession with Stornoway black pudding and a suitcase full of delicious scones, Maria returned home to Shetland with a number of valuable lessons that she hopes to take into her future Tech Embers work.

In this post, Maria outlines the following challenges and offers some proposed solutions for each:

Challenge 1: Getting Introductions to Schools

As you can imagine, building a network of schools is an entirely different beast to building a professional network. Critically, Maria identified the holidays as a significant and unexpected bottleneck that made it particularly difficult to engage with schools in the run-up to her visit.

The lesson learned here is to ensure that any events booked with schools are made a week after the end of any holiday period and any confirmations should be sent the week before a holiday period begins to give extra time for school staff to answer emails.

Reflecting on her trip, Maria also explains that networking with the likes of Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) and Skills Development Scotland (SDS) ahead of time would be useful to establish a stronger foothold with schools in the area.

Challenge 2: Schools Are Spread Across Large Geographical Areas

Owing to the sheer size of the Outer Hebrides, Maria explains that working with DYW and SDS to establish ‘clusters’ of schools would be a sensible next step.

While it’s relatively trivial to clump schools into cohorts by geographic proximity, Maria explains that the real challenge lies in combining local knowledge with a range of geospatial factors (e.g. population, number of schools, terrain, road access, etc.) to build useful clusters that will help to increase efficiency for all involved.

Some snaps from Maria's trip

Challenge 3: Finding a Sustainable Solution to In-Person Introductory Sessions

Considering the 250 miles of land and water between Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, Maria is acutely aware that travelling over to meet with new schools and expand the programme isn’t a sustainable solution.

While she maintains that in-person introductory sessions are important to convey the spirit of Silicon Croft and build strong relationships with schools, she believes the sustainable solution is to establish a bank of volunteers or ‘digital champions’ who can help with onboarding new schools.

With this in mind, the next challenge is to think about how to source these digital champions. If you have any ideas, give Maria a shout on the Silicon Croft group.

One option proposed by Maria is to contact existing coding clubs such as CoderDojo, CodeClub, STEM Ambassadors, and Raspberry Pi to see if they have any folk in the local area who might be interested in offering support. Even building awareness through local libraries, arts centres, community notice boards, or speaking with local businesses could unlock some exciting collaboration opportunities.

Challenge 4: Creating Work Experience Opportunities in Rural Areas

Considering Silicon Croft’s three-tiered methodology (Plant, Cultivate, Grow), the team at Mesomorphic are always thinking one step ahead and identifying possible bottlenecks in Scotland’s cross-over between education and the workplace.

Specifically, Silicon Croft is eager to ensure that young people who develop digital skills are able to apply these skills in the workplace once they finish secondary or tertiary education.

More from Maria's camera roll

Fanning the Fire

The Tech Embers programme is all about identifying small glows of activity in rural and underserved Scottish communities and providing these ‘embers’ with the 'kindling' they need to start a small fire that contributes to Scotland's wider tech ecosystem.

Whether it’s providing funds to run a tech meet-up in Oban, a series of immersive VR experiences for school children in the Highlands, or Maria’s ongoing work in the Outer Hebrides, the long-term success of these projects requires legacy initiatives that help to 'fan' these small siloed fires into a connected and self-sustaining blaze.

Be it identifying ‘digital champions’ to spread the load or partnering with other projects who align with your vision, it’s this collaboration between people and the clustering of groups that can turn an idea or challenge into a widespread movement.

Maria’s trip to the Outer Hebrides is the start of a much bigger movement and her lessons provide Silicon Croft with the fuel it needs to drive sustained change.

Join Tech Embers

To learn more about Maria’s work and the other projects we’re working with, head over to Tech Embers on Community Lab.

Tech Embers is supported by the Scottish Government Ecosystem Fund in connection with the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review.

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