Participants engage in a science experiment with Flying Cloud Institute. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Institute

Learning opportunities in a time of social distancing

Flying Cloud Institute's YouTube channel has at least a trio of purposes: Kids remain engaged in hands-on learning; activities can support families whose work lives are being disrupted; finally, there is an authentic audience to celebrate what kids are discovering and creating, even if it is outside of school.

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

Great Barrington — Flying Cloud Institute is embracing the reality of current times. In fact, it posted a new motto on Facebook Thursday morning: “Flatten the Curve! Social distancing is important to protect our community, and we’re ready to go.” “Go online, that is,” executive director Maria Rundle told me via phone interview Friday morning (the most prudent way to proceed, after all.) The local nonprofit is using this time — when public events are being cancelled at a steady clip and local schools are closed for the next two weeks — to empower the young people in our community. “The messaging we are giving is how powerful it is that [young people] are in a position to actually protect their community and do an incredible act of love for the older people in our community, and the vulnerable people in our community,” Rundle said. “This is a powerful role for our young people to have, and the more we can help them feel useful — and not just adjacent to this process — the better for all of us.” Beginning Friday afternoon, FCI educators will be sharing creative science and art projects to do from home — starting with an experiment on capillary action and how individuals can use this process to make their own disinfectant wipes.

A young participant in a Flying Cloud Institute Science experiment. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Institute

“Outside of school is our expertise,” said Rundle, whose enthusiasm for this next wave of work was palpable. FCI has a YouTube channel where it regularly shares work with school-aged students both in and out of the classroom; beginning Friday, plans are underway to post a series of new activities and experiments to engage students who are spending more time at home. “We will try and provide some out-of-school learning [kids] can do on their own,” said Rundle, who was expecting a small group of students to join her in the office at Saint James Place on Friday afternoon to create the aforementioned video. Rundle would like to be in a position to host small groups, when possible, “as long as we stay below a threshold of involvement,” and carry out good hygiene practices (like diligent hand-washing) while together. Rundle acknowledges a big difference between being in a school with several hundred people and still being able to get together to do an activity. Her hope is to set up some in-person opportunities for kids who might not be able to access online offerings.

Participating in a science experiment from Flying Cloud Institute. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Institute

“You know [many families] don’t necessarily have a 1-to-1 ratio when it comes to screens,” she said, calling this fact “a real equity challenge right now in terms of having enrichment activities outside of school.” As many school districts contemplate distance learning, Rundle points to the universal hurdles that abound. She has been in communication with local schools and superintendents to see if this type of online engagement can’t be an extension of things the nonprofit was already going to do in the school during the school day. The YouTube channel has at least a trio of purposes: Kids remain engaged in hands-on learning; activities can support families whose work lives are being disrupted; finally, there is an authentic audience to celebrate what kids are discovering and creating — even if it is outside of school.

“We are going to do our part,” said Rundle of the ways FCI is brainstorming how to be a resource for the community at time when schedules are being disrupted and many are feeling anxious as a result of decreased social interaction. Rundle cites panic as a very logical and rational response. “We are social animals,” she said, “[but] we do not need to go to either extreme, [being] terrified or lackadaisical.” Instead, she calls this “our moment to shine” as a community by taking very proactive — albeit often inconvenient — steps. “I’m really moved by this community,” she said. “[It is important to remind] young people that they are caring, loving, powerful people [who are] not just being shuffled around.” Instead, Rundle and her staff are taking these measures that are indeed disruptive and reacting in a way that is powerful and constructive. “We can all act together in a really responsible way,” she reminds us. As for the kids? “They are in it with us.”