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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Flying Cloud Institute—igniting creativity through innovative programming

The nonprofit is celebrating 40 years of inspiring young people and educators through dynamic science and art experiences.

With an ambitious strategic plan and 40 years of successful programming under its belt, Flying Cloud Institute (FCI) continues to inspire young people and educators and ignite creativity while increasing access to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) learning through school residencies, after-school MakerSpaces, S•M•Art Labs and Girls Science Clubs, and summer, winter, and spring break programs. Founded in 1984 by Jane and Larry Burke and David Schwartz, the unique “Science Meets Art” approach has developed into STEAM programming that serves roughly 2,500 youth and educators in five school districts across Berkshire County and Region One in Connecticut annually. (Click here for an in-depth exploration of Flying Cloud’s history.)

To celebrate this important milestone, Flying Cloud Institute (FCI) has planned a series of 40th-anniversary celebration events (sponsored by Webster Landscape, Elyse Harney Real Estate, Onyx Specialty Papers, and Warrior Trading). They include: A silkscreening evening at Bon Dimanche with owner and FCI alum Molly de St. Andre this spring; the Flying Cloud Institute Great Barrington Art Crawl featuring a youth art show at Bernay Art Gallery on August 20; the Alumni Weekend at the home of co-founders Jane and Larry Burke in late summer (date still TBD); and the STEAM Challenge Night at Hancock Shaker Village on October 16.

In addition, Flying Cloud’s Summer S•M•Arty Party (it’s annual fundraiser) will be held poolside at Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield on July 15. Expect tacos, cake, live reggae music by The Haughties, and fun surprises throughout the night. Tickets are available here.

“Flying Cloud is a wonder camp. It has truly transformed our children and left them with lasting experiences, friendships, and ways of walking in the world. Whether it’s making purple polymer clay, experimenting with the chemistry of chocolate, or animating original videos, our kids have made so many memories to last a lifetime,” says summer camp parent Caroline Bettinger-Lopez. Photo courtesy FCI

Summer program offerings

Summer learning loss (aka “summer slide”) is generally understood as a loss of academic skills and knowledge over the extended summer vacation. Like COVID learning loss, the burden affects low-income, minority, and urban populations more. But summer programs like Flying Cloud’s help combat those losses. Executive Director Maria Rundle believes in building agency through fun and enlightenment. “First comes fun, then comes enlightenment,” she explains. This summer at FCI, children can explore ceramics, chemistry, painting, drawing, sculpture, horticulture, robotics, environmental studies, music, dance, digital photography, filmmaking, and theater. In addition, they can enjoy the beauty of the natural world at April Hill Education and Conservation Center in South Egremont, home of Greenagers (a partner organization that will be offering workshops to FCI campers this year, too).

Working with physicist David Doyle at Rocket Camp. Photo courtesy FCI

Interested in innovation? Last year, FCI partnered with the Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC) in Pittsfield to pilot The S•M•Art Future Innovators Camp with a four-day Rocket Camp, where youth learned about physics as they built and launched rockets. That experience is expanding to three sessions this year: Welcome to the Science Lab, Blast Off with Rockets, and Art and Engineering, all held at BIC’s campus in Pittsfield.

BIC assistant director Kate Light notes, “Flying Cloud Institute has been inspiring young people in our community with creative STEM-focused programming for 40 years. We are at our best—both as the BIC and as a community—when we are collaborating and maximizing the opportunities for our region. Partnering with Flying Cloud on these initiatives is a perfect example of two organizations working together to make ‘one plus one equals three.’”

Need financial aid? In South County, 40 percent of families are considered low-income, and therefore eligible for financial aid; in North County, 65 percent are eligible. Eighty percent of Flying Cloud’s programs are delivered free to students in schools, which also eliminates other barriers to participation such as transportation. Increasing accessibility and expanding the geographical footprint are two specific goals outlined in FCI’s most recent strategic plan. It is making additional financial aid possible in two ways. Under the first model, it is built into the tuition, allowing FCI to extend its life-changing experiences, regardless of economic status or circumstances. And under the “Name your number” policy, FCI is able to work with existing partners to provide camp experiences for children in their organization. “This helps us partner with organizations we know and build trusting relationships with new organizations,” Rundle explains.

“There is a wonderful network of visionary people offering to respond to these needs,” development manager Amy Truax explains. “We are deeply thankful to The Crane Family Foundation, Berkshire United Way, Feigenbaum Foundation, other grants funded, and the generous individual donors who partner with us to create positive solutions. They are the true heroes!”

“I can’t thank you enough for the experience you gave my students this week. The empowered looks on their faces and in their voices was pure magic today,” says educator Sue Garcia. Photo courtesy FCI

School residencies

The school residencies have been a year-round effort since the 1990s, when Jane Burke applied for the first creative schools grant for multidisciplinary education. “We’re now able to provide resources for all of these schools and inspire youth and educators alike,” Rundle points out. “And we stay with these schools.”

FCI closets are filled with carefully labeled learning kits that travel easily—and often stay with the schools as resources. Photo by Robbi Hartt

FCI’s school residencies exploded this past year. “Thanks to the Dorr Foundation, we were able to offer free classroom residencies to every Pittsfield elementary school,” Rundle notes. “While we’re proud to say yes to a growing number of requests from Clarksburg to Springfield, our priority is still Pittsfield, Lee, and Southern Berkshire County. We work within the limitations of time and space but still achieve great things,” she continues. Allowing kids to share out through showcases is an important component of each residency to spread the passion for science and art to more students.

“Schools are under such pressure now. It’s more important than ever to support teachers in meaningful ways,” she maintains. “Our main objective is for all youth to see themselves as scientists and artists as they get excited about learning. It is also a privilege to share strategies with teachers, helping them understand how to get kids to design their own essential questions and then investigate those questions like scientists guiding their research. We incorporate simulations and models throughout our curriculum because it’s the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ that make the kids feel different. The residencies build self-confidence, which changes their relationship to science and to themselves.”

As one fifth-grade science teacher shared, “I feel confident in my ability to move out of the old standards I’ve taught for years and create new units and lessons that focus on more inquiry, higher student engagement, incorporated math and ELA, and better communication.”

Schools are facing incredible challenges—from budget crunches to teachers leaving. “You feel the frustration and the sadness, and it’s easy to feel helpless,” Truax acknowledges. “We feel very lucky that we are able to come in and support students and teachers. We see what is possible when you use a proactive approach like Flying Cloud’s and work together with community partners, organizations, and donors.”

Flying Cloud educators teach grade-specific state standards in science, technology, and engineering through hands-on investigations and challenges. Students then share their learning through creative expression, building prototypes and models, or hosting a Science Museum for younger students in their school. Residencies allow students to meet and work alongside STEM professionals and artists from their community while learning the skills and practices they need to be successful in school.

A young scientist in FCI’s after-school S•M•Art lab. Photo courtesy FCI

Mass Afterschool Partnership (MAP) spotlight

FCI staff were invited to present at the MAP conference this year in Devens, MA. “What started as a specific experience has now grown into a resource for all of these schools,” Truax affirms. “Flying Cloud is now recognized as a leader in STEM education throughout the state. Being asked to present alongside the Boston Science Museum was really amazing!”

They led workshops, offered ready-to-go resources, and published a booklet with “everything necessary to run these projects tomorrow.” Explaining what makes FCI’s approach so successful, Rundle admits, “The magic is in the how. We respond as equals and lead students, but they are doing the hands-on activities themselves. We work to bring about an identity shift, so students see themselves as scientists.” Sometimes it’s a little tweak, she notes, like using the scientific term “polymer” rather than the everyday term “slime.”

“Teachers build us into their schedules, and principals invite us in to cover standards or model best practices for new teachers,” she says. “The schools especially need help with teaching Next Generation Science Standards. Having our staff share their expertise is invaluable.” In building more residencies, FCI hopes to help schools avoid relying on temporary ARPA funds and instead become part of their ongoing landscape. “We always leave behind a curriculum and equipment, so it’s not just a one-off, but rather something that empowers systemic change,” Rundle emphasizes. ♥️

Working with astrophysicist Hiroka Warren from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at the STEM Summer Intensive at BCC. Photo courtesy FCI

Young women in science

Increasing the rate of women in STEM is an important step to building economic empowerment through higher paying STEM jobs and to building a stronger STEM pipeline for Berkshire businesses (where one in five jobs are STEM-related, but women still only hold one in three, excluding healthcare jobs). “Even as we’re making gains in STEM, it’s not translating into women getting employed in those industries,” Rundle cautions. “Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Greylock Federal Credit Union, Lee Bank Foundation, and The Miriam Fund are a few of the critical funding partners who understand that breaking down barriers to STEM for women and minorities is actually important to the economic development of our community as a whole,” she notes.

Flying Cloud’s STEM Summer Week (August 5-9) and weekly after-school Girls Science Clubs offer female-identified young scientists ages 9 to 15 a chance to “explore, learn, and lead the way” as they work with dynamic women STEM professionals. “Our STEM volunteers include a nanobiologist, an astrophysicist, a genomics researcher, and the team of Snapdragon Chemistry microbiologists…all looking to empower the next generation of women in STEM,” boasts Rundle. “We ask professionals to volunteer one afternoon a year to share their passion for STEM and their career journey and to work with youth in a hands-on experiment or project related to their field. Then we create and set up the project, so the microbiologist is able to focus on being the expert, not on being an educator. It’s reciprocal learning at its best. We all learn something in the process.”

It’s about numbers—and making a difference

Numbers tell a big part of the Flying Cloud story, particularly in relation to the board’s strategic goals to increase accessibility, raise recognition, expand year-round programming, improve diversity and community involvement, and ensure long-term financial stability. And so, we’ll start with the numbers: 6 year-round staff and 23 seasonal staff—through classroom residencies, school break camps, S•M•Art Summer sessions, STEM Summer, Rocket Camp, Maker Space, after-school programs, Girls Science Clubs, field trips, and STEAM Challenge nights—have impacted the lives of 317 adults, 74 educators/artists/scientists, and 1,698 youth!

But the real success of the program can only be expressed in the words and feelings of those who have been changed by their Flying Cloud experiences:

“This is my home. I’ve been in a lot of different places. There’s always been something closed up inside of me, but when I got here, you made it blossom!” — Ten-year-old Georgia, CLuB program participant during the pandemic

“I don’t consider myself necessarily a scientist—but if you go to Flying Cloud, you’re a scientist now you know; it creates this beautiful, kind of journey coming from yourself. You choose your pace, you choose what you get to do.” — Former camper Maddie Rundle

“My sisters were part of the first group to go through Flying Cloud, I was not in the age group. I now get to experience Flying Cloud vicariously through my daughter. What I love about Flying Cloud is that the activities are led by the kids and their curiosity. The question or project is proposed and there is no expectation of how to accomplish the activity or the outcome. The child gets to feel the accomplishment of problem solving. I saw how much this type of experience formed my sisters and now my daughter’s relationship to creativity and artistic expression.” — Board member Wenonah Webster

“In my professional life, I’m a watercolor artist and I do botanical art—but I’ve also been a science teacher. I really like my art, bringing the sort of scientific inquiry and these artistic practices together. I realized a few months ago: That started at Flying Cloud, and really being around Jane [Burke], and seeing how she was a scientist-artist-leader was quite formative for my life… I started as early as I could as a camper, at age seven or eight, and continued until I started working. Today, I am a S•M•Art Educator.” — Former camper and current faculty member Elizabeth Orenstein

For more information and to register for events, visit FlyingCloudInstitute.org.

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