Maria Rundle, the new Executive Director of Flying Cloud Institute.

At the start of this year, Maria Rundle took over as Executive Director of Flying Cloud Institute in Great Barrington following the retirement of the Founding Director, Jane Burke.

Originally based in New Marlborough, MA, Flying Cloud Institute was founded in 1980 as a center for community education. In 1983 FCI shifted its focus to science and arts education for children, establishing a summer program with environmental themes led by area specialists in these fields.

Programs on-site and in area schools began in 1988 and led to a continuing partnership with the Southern Berkshire Regional School District. Beginning with a few classrooms participating in interdisciplinary science and math residencies, by 2000 FCI’s work had expanded to reach 30 teachers, 600 students. Now FCI has become a major player in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education with partnerships in four Berkshire County school districts, reaching more than 3,500 students annually.

WAM took some time to sit down with Maria and find out her vision for Flying Cloud, which is the beneficiary of our 2017 remount of Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson. WAM’s donation from the show will support scholarships for public school girls who attend Flying Cloud’s after school Girls Science Clubs, so girls who show promise and interest in science can join the Young Women in Science summer programs where they conduct experiments with women scientists and engineers working in laboratories at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Berkshire Community College.

WAM Theatre: You are no stranger to the Berkshires, are you Maria.

Maria Rundle: No, I was born in Richmond and my husband and I returned to this area in 2008 when we joined the staff at Gould Farm in Monterey. In between I went to Binghamton University for my undergraduate degree and then became a union organizer, working with a variety of unions – health care, education, janitors – in Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit. I went back to Binghamton to get my M.Ed. and become a teacher, and I did teach briefly in Ithaca before we came to Gould Farm, where I most recently worked as the Director of Development. I am active in the Berkshire community and just finished a four-year term on the board of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

WAM Theatre: You have a strong background in leadership and education. What attracted you to the position at Flying Cloud?

Maria: Flying Cloud is the gold standard for high quality science and math content and delivery.  My daughter is very drawn to both math and art, and she needed some special attention, so I enrolled her in Flying Cloud a few years ago and she got incredible science and art experiences. I remember she came home one day and said, “This is the best day of my life!” Our programs really meet kids’ needs one on one through project based inquiry, because that’s how humans learn.

Photo credit: Flying Cloud Institute

WAM: We are supporting some of your programs specifically for girls, but Flying Cloud offers workshops for all kids, right?

Maria: Yes, and for county educators too. What I’ve learned since arriving is how high the stakes are now. In the Pittsfield elementary schools they no longer have time to look at science as a discipline, they have taken science and social studies out of the curriculum and made them “special.” At the same time the state has released these amazing standards of “21st Century Skills” that we need to prepare learners to learn. The standards are wonderful but it is challenging for educators to incorporate them into the curriculum on their own. We offer professional development so teachers can meet the standards in their classrooms, and in doing so we are creating a regional professional learning organization. The teachers who have experience with these wonderful creative arts and experiential based curricula can share them with their colleagues.

WAM: Is it a challenge to follow in the footsteps of the Founder, Jane Burke, at Flying Cloud?

Maria: Jane started initiating her retirement process three years ago and she did a really thorough job of preparing the organization for the transition. She brought in Jennifer Dowley, who was with the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation for many years, to do the search process. Jane is staying on as an educator and consultant, and she is as passionate as ever about education It’s a real asset not to lose that link to history, values, and relationships. At Gould Farm there is lots of generational reach so I’ve had experience with those transitions.

Photo credit: Flying Cloud Institute

WAM: It is easy to see why Flying Cloud was selected to become a WAM beneficiary.

Maria: Yes, that started before I came on board through a collaboration with Ruth Dinerman, our Director of Development, and I think it is just wonderful. Everyone at WAM is so positive and organized and cheerful. You have welcomed us with open arms and great energy. Our partnership is exciting because it takes work we’ve already invested in and it has already created more synergy than anyone could have imagined. Just like WAM we have collaborated with Shirley Edgerton’s ROPE initiative, who in turn collaborated with another WAM beneficiary, the Mother of Peace Orphanage in Illovo, South Africa. It shows that when we have problems with access to education and the arts, we have all these solutions right here that are working all the time.

I did lots of theatre in college and before that I did the Fall Festival of Shakespeare as a high school student here in the Berkshires. In fact, I remember when I was in fourth grade Shakespeare & Company came to Richmond School to do a residency and I just thought the leaders were like gods! As young people search to find themselves, theatre gives them the freedom to try on different personalities.

WAM: We are excited to share Emilie… with young women, and especially young women who are drawn to math and science who may feel that culturally those aren’t fields they should enjoy or pursue.

Maria: We thought hard how best to get our students not just into the theatre, but into the play itself. We received a wonderful grant from MASS Humanities that will support ways to make the performance accessible to high-need students. We will have a physicist and WAM teaching artist visit with them before they see the play, and then talk back with a panel of scientists and artists immediately after a special matinee performance on April 6th to engage them on a deeper level. WAM understands the value of extended cultural learning and the need to get students exposed to scientists and artists who can help them make meaning out of the play they’ve just seen.

WAM: And these are students in your workshops specifically for girls?

Photo credit: Flying Cloud Institute

Maria: Yes, we have girls’ science clubs in Pittsfield elementary schools that are led by high-school age mentors who are paid a stipend by Flying Cloud. One hundred percent of WAM’s gift is going specifically to provide scholarships for those high school mentors to study with working scientists at our one-week Young Women in Science training program at Simon’s Rock and Berkshire Community College this summer.

We also have a Middle School STEAM Team to bring along our next group of high school mentors. This program has worked well for years and we are proud to have alumnae working in STEAM jobs, supported every step of the way by Flying Cloud. If you can see it you can be it.

WAM: You’ve only been on the job a few months, dare we ask what your dreams are for Flying Cloud in the future?

Maria: The big need is supporting professional development, and to that end there will be a County wide strategic planning process later this year. There has been a huge surge of understanding of how the arts can unlock the STEM fields for children.

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