Brilliant Labs

Unexpected but brilliant: Engagement skyrockets for New Brunswick not-for-profit through shift to virtual learning during COVID-19


When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the region, parents and teachers working from home were faced with the challenge of occupying and engaging children and young people stuck in quarantine. For New Brunswick-based Brilliant Labs, that challenge presented incredible opportunity.

Brilliant Labs – a hands-on technology and experiential learning organization that integrates creativity, innovation, coding, and entrepreneurship into K-12 classrooms across Atlantic Canada – swiftly transitioned from the classroom to online. Since the launch of their virtual platform, they have seen an increase in engagement from students and families on a global scale.

“We essentially virtualized everything," explained Jeff Willson, Executive Director, Atlantic. "We took some of the content that we would normally take into classrooms and began to develop different resources around it."

Seeing the opportunity to bring a level of routine and consistency to children and parents quarantined at home, Brilliant Labs began by launching their #MakerFun Daily Challenges, programming for young people centered around the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The premise was simple – every day at 9am, children and parents were presented with a question of the day, prompting collaborative discussion and critical thinking about a real-world issue. This was then followed by their #MakerFun challenge and a digital skills activity related to the same theme. At the end of the day, solutions and projects were shared during a virtual show-and-tell.

The response was astounding. By the end of the summer, staff at Brilliant Labs had developed over 110 original and bilingual online #MakerFun activities. To meet demand for more, the organization developed seven weeks of programming for summer camps, twelve special interest courses, an educational Minecraft server, and 40 'read-aloud' pedagogical booklets designed by Miramichi grade 11 student, Robin Ross. These activities were access by 750,000 people worldwide.

"We reached more people in the pandemic than we had the entire year before it," shared Willson. "We had people from South Africa, South America, New Zealand, England, all over the world tapping into our programming. We were receiving messages from families internationally saying, 'This is awesome, keep it up!' That really motivated the team to keep going."

Willson emphasized the pivotal role that ACOA has played in allowing Brilliant Labs to continue operating during COVID and provide virtual programs. In order to assist clients through the exceptional circumstances surrounding the pandemic, the Agency has been flexible with disbursements on existing and new projects by providing advance payments. "In our case, ACOA gave us a huge sense of security. The fact that ACOA was there at the beginning of the pandemic, offering help proactively without us saying, 'Hey, we could use a hand here!' certainly alleviated a lot of worrying situations." ACOA continues to support Brilliant Labs in helping youth develop digital skills and competencies, to help prepare them for the jobs of the future.

Moving forward, Brilliant Labs' approach is clear – their virtual programming is here to stay. "We're definitely never going back to our old model," said Willson. "We're going to pivot, and regardless of what happens, we're never going to drop the virtual component of what we're doing. It's allowing us to reach places that we never imagined could be possible."

The organization hopes to continue expanding on an international scale, while creating and nurturing a sustainable knowledge-based economy here in Atlantic Canada.

According to Willson: "That's what gets us out of bed every day and energizes us to do the work that we do – the time is now more than ever to empower young people with the digital skills and competencies that they need to be successful tomorrow."

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