Spotlight on Doing Good: Flying Cloud Institute

Thirty-three years ago, longtime educators Jane and Larry Burke recognized the need for an educational after-school program in the Berkshires, and started one right in the backyard of their 200-acre colonial homestead. The program was so popular that it rapidly grew into the Flying Cloud Institute, a small yet respected science and art camp named for a famous clipper ship that was skippered, by a pioneering female navigator, on two speed-record-setting voyages from New York to San Francisco in the 1850s.

By the 1990s, locals school came knocking, to ask Flying Cloud to bring their innovative and successful programs into their classrooms. Today Flying Cloud primarily works within schools, enhancing their standard curriculum with guest residencies, teacher trainings, and unique classes and workshops for kids in grades k–12 and teachers of grades k–8.

Flying Cloud’s programming—which is offered year round and free to 3,500 students in public schools throughout the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts—is a forward-thinking take on STEM: to the traditional mix of science, technology, engineering, and math, Flying Cloud Institute adds arts education. The subjects are connected through a series of unusual hands-on experiences.

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Professional scientists are brought in to lead weekly demonstrations, investigations, and experiments on topics like material science and physics. Meanwhile, professional artists offer workshops on everything from painting to dance. Maria Rundle, Flying Cloud’s executive director, says, “Scientific investigations that scientists and engineers do are a creative process, just like art is a creative process. When we bring creative experiences into the classroom, we free up teachers to value not just the correct answer, but also the creative process.”

Flying Cloud’s STEAM approach also frees up students to not only develop personal expression, but also to deepen their understanding of scientific concepts. In “The Story of Clay,” a unit on chemistry, for example, students mined the mud of the Berkshires, and broke it down into its component parts. From there, they learned basic pottery making, and how adding different materials to the clay could create pottery that’s more durable, flexible, or colorful. The students’ work was later displayed in an exhibition.

This approach presents the opportunity for children to see theoretical concepts made visible. Rundle says, “Art and science are works in progress and you’re not ever really reaching the end point in your creative process. We’ve unfortunately taken a step backward with No Child Left Behind and segmenting the core programs, instead of trying to present an integrated whole.

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“We believe in more of a Ben Franklin model: you can be into electricity, government, and writing your own magazine. You don’t have to limit yourself to one thing.”

One of Flying Cloud’s marquee programs is its Girls Science Clubs. Originally created to address the steep decline in girls’ interest in science and math that occurs around the third grade, and the lack of female science role models in rural towns, the program has become one of Flying Cloud’s most requested. In it, professional female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians lead a variety of hands-on projects with young women from a range of backgrounds and interests.

Flying Cloud Institute also trains high school mentors to work as lab support for the STEM professionals. Not only is this experience invaluable for the girls’ college resumes, but many have been inspired to pursue work in STEM professions—including coding and robotics for companies like Google and Microsoft.

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But whether or not a student goes on to a career in STEM, Flying Cloud’s mission is encourage science literacy. “We want students to become citizens who understand and appreciate STEM and feel that it’s accessible to them, that science and math aren’t something ‘for everybody else.’”

She notes that before participating in the clubs, some girls have expressed interest in becoming a baker or a dancer, or working with animals. After taking part in Girls Science Club, they say they’d also like to be an engineer or a polymer scientist. “They’re not giving up their interests; they’re adding to their identity of who they are and what they want to be,” Rundle says.

Upcoming plans for Flying Cloud include providing more support and professional development programs for teachers. And the team is working on a makers’ space, to bring together the best of vocational tech, coding, alternative energy programs, and more, in a common place where kids can experiment with ideas and collaborate with peers they might not otherwise cross paths with in a typical day. They’re also taking the concept on the road with “makers’ space in a box,” a portable suite of computer hardware and software, power tools, electronics, and more that will allow children to craft unique, horizon-opening experiences. And they’d like to launch the Girls Science Club concept countrywide.

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Reaching out to this broader audience is key to expanding Flying Cloud’s influence. But along with that expansion comes a need for increased fundraising to support Flying Cloud’s programming, which is offered free to schools and is entirely community funded. “It’s a challenge for us to compete with all the other incredible nonprofits for our area’s very generous donors,” Rundle says. But with its team of dedicated and knowledgeable professionals, its focus on creative, student-centered programmed, and thousands of engaged schoolchildren, Flying Cloud Institute seems poised to break records, just like its historical namesake.