United Way grant for Flying Cloud a ‘dream come true’ for educating young women in science

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By Thursday, Jul 13 Learning
Hannah Van Sickle
The entrance to the Flying Cloud Institute in New Marlborough.

New Marlborough — It’s summer at Flying Cloud Institute, and the more than-200-acre campus where chemist-turned-ceramicist Jane Burke first engaged local youth in art and science programs more than 30 summers ago is literally abuzz with activity, focused largely around the habits of bees.

The shaded dirt drive is lined with orange daylilies and ferns, a scene that quickly gives way to swaying stands of flowering milkweed punctuated by larger clusters of tiny purple flowers around which dozens upon dozens of native bees buzz audibly. The organization, known widely for its integrated science and art experiences in southern Berkshire County, has just received $25,000 from Berkshire United Way to support its Young Women in Science after-school and summer programs reaching more than 360 girls in grades 3 to 12 from Sheffield to Pittsfield; this funding will support all aspects of this program and will help FCI improve its program evaluation.

“It’s like a dream come true,” says Lindsey Berkowitz, Young Women in Science programs director at FCI, “to have an organization like United Way understand that in order to do more–particularly in Pittsfield–that we need support.”

After piloting a program for middle school students this past year, Berkowitz appreciates the validation this grant represents in allowing FCI to “provide more opportunities for kids and extend our capacity to connect with other communities.”

The Young Women in Science programs invite girls into the exciting world of science, technology, engineering and math through hands-on work with female STEM professionals who inspire the next generation by guiding girls through real science experiments and engineering design projects. Starting with Girls Science Clubs in elementary schools and continuing through their high school years, girls and young women gain skills and confidence and begin to envision themselves as future scientists and engineers.

Just a glimpse of the SMArt Studio Summer session in progress at the New Marlborough campus speaks volumes about FCI’s ability to engage students: “Native pollinators don’t bite one another,” Russ Wilson of Bees Across Massachusetts explains to a group of students huddled around him.

Wilson is a wealth of knowledge, explaining to a captive audience the difference between mason bees and leafcutter bees–both important pollinators of wildflowers, fruits and vegetables–and adding that 50 bees will pollinate an acre. He also answers questions just as quickly as they are fired at him: “You put the mason bees in the refrigerator–don’t they die?” one boy asks.

Russ Wilson of Bees Across Massachusetts explains beekeeping to a group of students. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Russ Wilson of Bees Across Massachusetts explains beekeeping to a group of students. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

They don’t, I soon learn, as the environment mimics the bees’ native winter climate. Students in this session at FCI are using bees and the inspiration they provide in all arenas from architecture and drama to robotics and costume making. In this vein, a disparate group of individuals is able to use common tools and experiences as a springboard for synthesis, and the outcomes are endless.

One student coded a robot to travel through the garden, awash in purple and red ornamental poppies, and pollinate different flowers. Another student created a 3D mixed-media watercolor painting and collage expression of the robot’s path. It was even mentioned that another student created a costume for the robot.

“It has been absolutely incredible to see the artists [this session] embrace different creative expressions through the lens of these fascinating creatures,” says FCI executive director Maria Rundle, who is enjoying her first summer “on the farm” in New Marlborough.

FCI founder and educator Jane Burke is back in the ceramics studio–a return to her original capacity, and one that has her feeling “ecstatic.” Her enthusiasm is palpable as she depicts the scene from earlier in the summer when a clay pile from Sheffield Pottery was delivered. Burke brings what she calls “historical perspective” to the daily operations at FCI and she is beside herself at the fact that her summer assistants in the ceramics studio are students she began with as 5-year-olds.

“I am entrusting one to load the kiln and mix the glazes,” she says, noting that change is afoot in multiple ways. Burke stepped out of the role of executive director on Feb. 1 and Rundle has capably stepped in not simply to fill Burke’s shoes, but rather to join the team.

Flying Cloud Institute executive director Maria Rundle. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Flying Cloud Institute executive director Maria Rundle. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

This rhetoric is indicative of the collaborative approach that has allowed FCI to move forward through the transition: ”a privilege for everyone,” according to Burke, herself included. She notes that, together, they are recognizing that “the impossible can happen” and the team at Flying Cloud Institute has the momentum to bring it to fruition.

Rundle, who joined the team in mid-January after leaving her post as director of development at Gould Farm in neighboring Monterey, is happily ensconced in her inaugural summer season at FCI. Of her experience thus far?

“The summer represents one of the highlights at Flying Cloud–a celebration of everything we do in our work with public schools bringing creative science and art experiences to young people and educators throughout the Berkshires,” she says. “The opportunity to play, explore and experiment in our own backyard,” she adds, “is not work we intend to be pretty, but then it is beautiful.”

This beauty abounds both on and off campus. The institute’s summer science intensives, where participants work with female STEM professionals in the lab, give girls going into grades 4 to 12 opportunities to go deeper while working in well-outfitted college laboratories. A mentor training program in STEM subjects and leadership prepares high school girls so they can work in the Girls Science Clubs during the school year.

For many participants, these summer programs are their first experiences on a college campus. And, according to Berkowitz, “more programs mean more students hired [as mentors], which feeds this cycle.” This coming school year, the institute will offer girls science clubs at Undermountain, Muddy Brook, Monument Valley, Lee Elementary, Conte Community, Crosby and Reid schools.

After school, girls explore such subjects as atmospheric science, polymers, nanoscience, astrophysics, robotics and genetics with women STEM professionals from across the region. The women work at such places as General Dynamics, Williams College, UMass, SABIC, SUNY/Albany, Covestro and the Neural Stem Cell Institute.

Milkweed flowers greet students attending Flying Cloud Institute, which recently received a $25,000 grant from Berkshire United Way. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Milkweed flowers greet students attending Flying Cloud Institute, which recently received a $25,000 grant from Berkshire United Way. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

FCI trains and hires high school mentors to help the younger girls explore open-ended laboratories while receiving direct support and guidance from the women professionals. As the younger girls find a sometimes-unexpected delight in science and engineering, they work together on projects and challenges that build science, literacy and critical-thinking skills.

Rundle gushes enthusiasm when she talks about these programs, which have been “tried and tested in [South County] schools.” She goes on to say “the legitimate need we are filling is extremely gratifying,” adding that both the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, where Burke has been workshopping these programs for over 30 years, and the Pittsfield Public Schools are both designated “high-needs districts” by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

SBRSD has been named a Level 3 school largely due its poor participation brought about by a recent spate of parents opting their children out of MCAS and PARCC testing, while Pittsfield has more legitimate “high needs” that are diverse–albeit inclusive of academics–due to its being the largest city in Berkshire County. Of particular importance is the fact that a district is typically assigned a level based on the level of its lowest performing school.

Placing schools and districts into levels helps districts know which schools need more support and helps the state know which districts need the most assistance. In short, Rundle’s enthusiasm stems from her confidence that the FCI programs being offered meet the needs of students in myriad ways, not the least of which being that, given the current emphasis on standardized testing, “students are able to learn literacy skills and computational thinking skills through [the application of] science and art.” This is something that all students, regardless of their location, stand to benefit from.

Berkshire United Way has served 26 towns throughout Berkshire County for more than 90 years, mobilizing the resources necessary to address the most pressing issues and lead the way to a thriving community. As part of a global network, BUW focuses on creating lasting change by giving parents the tools they need to be partners in their children’s success, leading to healthy decision-making by youth and resulting in successful, stable lives.

BUW’s support of FCI, whose mission is to inspire young people and educators through dynamic science and art experiences that ignite creativity, is reason enough to create a stir.


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