Tuesday, Jan. 8 saw the launch of Nova Scotia’s newest “innovation sandbox.” Science Unleashed: Research Growing the Economy, better known by its acronym SURGE, aims to be a centre for science for Dalhousie University students.
Aaron Newman is a member of the department of neuroscience and psychology at Dal as well as the director of SURGE. They were able to renovate their space thanks to funding from the province.
“The funding we received helped to renovate space in the department of oceanography at Dalhousie,” said Newman, referring to the 5,000 square feet now dedicated to SURGE. “One of the programs we’re doing is an incubator program. Students who are looking to build a start-up but are in the early stages … We’ll be able to provide them with space to work, and access to mentorship.”
The concept of the sandbox is essentially a space intended to foster innovation and collaboration through specific programming and access to resources and technology. These resources include tables, workbenches, and storage space for students, as well as guidance from faculty members and local professionals.
SURGE has big plans for their future programming. The first big event they have planned, called Deep Dive, is exploring virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). SURGE is calling on members of the local developer community who work in and develop applications dealing with VR and AR. This event will be taking place from Feb. 1 to Feb. 3.
“It’s about exposing people to the technology and the opportunities,” said Newman. “To actually experience VR if you’ve never done that before, think about the possibilities, and ideas and solutions that can possibly be brought forward.”
Access to technology is one of the mandates of SURGE: to ensure that students who harbour an interest in these emerging technologies have the opportunity to play with them and learn about them. In this way, these students will be able to think about their many potential applications.
SURGE also aims to change the way students look at science, and how they relate them to the world. The first step in the sandbox is to identify problems and identify the groups of people who are affected.
“How do they see the problem? What do they see as the most valuable thing you can do for them? And then how do you design a solution around that?” Said Newman.
“The other piece is how do you design a business model out of that. Anything you want to develop that’s new, that’s innovative,” he continued. “It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take money to develop that and get it into the hands of people that need it.”
Newman emphasized how important it is to talk about the economic side of science research. Since students are traditionally surrounded by faculty members, they are often not exposed to science outside of academia. For this reason, it’s not so much about “how much money you can make, but in understanding the process of research and development and getting something to market.”
According to Newman, this perspective is a unique opportunity for students to gain insight into scientific fields that differ from what they’re normally exposed to. He discussed how the industries in Nova Scotia are currently changing as they face huge challenges with the changing climate and a changing economy: “We need a more diversified economy,” he said. “The goal is to foster this novel economic growth.”
Newman believes students and faculty alike will think differently about the opportunities in science outside the traditional jobs in academia as a result of SURGE.
These initiatives, he said, broaden students’ perspectives are so they feel more prepared should they decide to pursue their careers outside of academia. Unlike other accelerator programs that expect rapid results to result after only a few days, SURGE wants to allow students to explore, experiment, and gain skills they can take forward with them.
“The sandbox here is about is changing the conversation and culture about what science is in university.”