Brilliant Labs Is Getting More Kids To Create and Innovate Through Community Makerspaces

Inside the Nick Nicolle Centre makerspace during a "video night" event. (Image: Submitted)

SAINT JOHN– New Brunswick’s Brilliant Labs is helping more of the province’s kids embrace technology who may otherwise wouldn’t through its community makerspaces in Saint John, and the organization says more are in the works across the province.

Brilliant Labs is a non-profit organization that combines technology- and project-based learning with innovation and entrepreneurship to deliver programs within schools and communities. One of the ways it does this is through its makerspaces.

The makerspaces provide users with tools such as computers, digital/electronic art, fabrication, machining, science, technology and textiles, among others. They are managed by Brilliant Labs staff who provide support and assist users with equipment, training, as well as ongoing guidance and professional development. The idea behind these spaces is to get kids to learn tech skills through project-based learning, which will show them practical applications and where such skills could take them in the future.

Brilliant Labs executive director Jeff Willson says the idea to start community makerspaces spurred from the ones they established in schools when the organization first launched.

“We quickly realized that you can’t just ask kids to code for the sake of coding and you can’t ask teachers to teach kids to code just for the sake of coding,” says Willson. “It has to be done through project-based learning. What better way to do hands-on learning than makerspaces?”

Brilliant Labs now has around 75 makerspaces in schools across New Brunswick. Though being in the schools is obviously important, they realized that some kids were still missing the opportunity to learn. They wanted to bring their makerspace model to other areas in communities.

“We also recognized as an organization that learning shouldn’t stop at 3 p.m. when the bell rings and everybody goes,” says Willson. “Especially some priority neighbourhoods in the Saint John area, kids were disengaged.”

After securing appropriate funding and running a pilot for the spaces in the form of summer camps last year, Brilliant Labs established its first two community makerspaces. One at the Teen Resource Centre in uptown Saint John, the second in the Nick Nicolle Community Centre in the city’s north end. They are run by Brilliant Labs staff, who help kids embrace technology through structured workshops as well as helping them with individual projects. The two makerspaces see around 50 kids per week combined, and that number is growing.

“They are getting them to dream about what’s possible and empowering them to build prototypes and take it to the next step,” says Willson. “But also not doing it in a way that’s not ‘hey kids, this is so awesome and easy, anybody can do it.’ But instead ‘No, this is going to be hard work, but we’re here to help you, and if you really care enough about it, we’ll get it done.'”

Willson says having the community makerspaces are important because it helps keep kids engaged after school hours, but also captures those kids who may not thrive in the school environment.

“In the school setting, it’s directly tied to learning outcomes, skills and competency developments. There are a few kids that love school and they’re in it to win it, but there’s a larger population than we think that [are disengaged],” he says.

“It’s super important because these are the kids that light up when they get a chance to go to their community centre . . . They are finding people that resonate with them and inspire them. For us to be able to team up with these community groups to develop these makerspaces is super important because if not, those other kids would never be exposed to this.”

Perhaps what’s more important is the fact that the need for young people to learn these skill isn’t going to go away.

“It’s essential for New Brunswick kids ten, twenty years for now. You hear of automation, AI, and machine learning coming in and replacing jobs,” says Willson. “We want them to be makers and inventors to be able to shape that future, not just consume or be consumed by it.”

Brilliant Labs plans to open more community makerspaces in the future as the organization secures more funding. There is one being created at ConnexionWorks in Saint John and four in development in the Grand Falls region. The organization is also working with public libraries, like the Saint John Free Public Library and the Moncton Public Library, to set up makerspaces of their own. Willson says more details will be announced in the fall.

“Hopefully in the next two or three years, most communities, libraries and schools, will have access to these awesome innovation tools,” he says.