This Month’s Featured Article

Flying Cloud Turns 40

By Published On: May 31st, 2024

This year, Flying Cloud Institute, based in Great Barrington, MA, turns 40. For decades, Flying Cloud has been inspiring young people and educators through dynamic science and art experiences that ignite creativity. Main Street Magazine sat down with executive director Maria Rundle to find out more about the organization’s history and programs. 

What is Flying Cloud, and how did you find your way to becoming the executive director of the organization?

My background in in education and labor rights. My children were going to a local public school, and it had an amazing half-day robotics program. I knew that one of my children had a special drive and curiosity for science that wasn’t necessarily being met during the school day.  

So we sent her to Flying Cloud Camp, and she came back saying, “This was the best day of my life,” having done chemistry, ceramics, and engineering design. And this was as a six-year-old!  

What impressed me most was how committed Flying Cloud was to treating young people, even six-year-olds, as interesting, creative, curious scientists and artists and working alongside them to answer their questions, solve problems, and make art – and that is a very appealing approach. 

Flying Cloud plays a very important role right now in holding space in our school system for creative learning and in igniting a passion for science and art. But I also see Flying Cloud as a model for how we need to shift public education away from the high-stakes, standardized testing model.  

And now Flying Cloud is 40?

Yes! And I see this 40th as a way to appreciate and celebrate our founders in the community.  

Our founders, Jane and Larry Burke, have a beautiful property in New Marlborough, MA. Four decades ago, they were in the midst of raising their own children in the spirit of creativity and investigation. They started inviting neighborhood children to be part of that. And that was the start of Flying Cloud, which is this beautiful, loving, caring, curious approach to youth.  

The Southern Berkshire school district heard about what was happening and started inviting Jane to come into its schools and share what she was doing with her kids in the neighborhood. The program grew from there.  

What are the program priorities for Flying Cloud?

We have three streams of programming in our approach to creative education. One is SMART – Science Meets Art, which is a concept Larry came up with. We go into the classrooms of our SMART schools. We teach the state-specific standards through hands-on inquiry-based experiences. Then, we bring in local artists to help students make their learning visible through creative expression. We also offer professional development for teachers and share strategies for bringing creative learning into the classroom.  

The second stream of programming is SMART studio, where we bring all of our experiments and investigations into the field to art studios and laboratories around our region. We have summer programs and camps. During the summer school breaks, and in after-school programs, we work in public schools to share these workshops.  

The last stream of programming is our Young Women in Science program, which is set up to work towards closing the gender gap that exists in STEM fields, specifically in many careers where women are making very slow progress: engineering design, computer science, AI, and mathematics. Even though overall women have closed the gender gap, we’ve actually made the most gains in the least lucrative sciences and in healthcare.  

Research has taught us that girls lose their identity as STEM-capable at age nine and at the end of middle school, so we try to run programs that meet girls at those vulnerable moments and match them with successful women from their own communities who are engineers and scientists and can share their inspirational stories with these young girls.  

We are now working with our next generation of Flying Cloud students. We invite STEM-professional scientists and engineers who used to be members of our girls’ science clubs and were with us when they were six years old to volunteer in our summer camps and school programs. It’s exciting to see the program’s impact and the ways that the culture of learning integral to Flying Cloud continues. 

Starting from its homespun roots, how has Flying Cloud been able to keep that backyard ethos created by Jane and Larry, or have you moved away from that?

We’re not moving away. We have intentionally dug in further. The big commitment that we’ve made is to authenticity. I know that that word gets thrown around, and I probably should come up with a better word at this point, but whatever you call it, involving youth in real work of science, engineering, and art is the most engaging way to stay committed to the principles and the values that were part of our founding. That’s why we hire real scientists, engineers, and artists to work alongside youth.  

One of the things that our adult graduates have said is that being seen and heard by real scientists and artists when they were children transformed their thinking of themselves as creators and gave their questions real meaning. So, making sure that we still work alongside the professionals of our community and that our kids get to work with them is a key piece of our mission.  

This idea of being seen and heard by real scientists and artists is so critical. How have you made efforts to ensure that those professionals and artists reflect the diversity of the populations Flying Cloud serves?

That’s such a crucial thing for every nonprofit who works out of the Berkshires to take on in a very serious way because the danger with something really special like Flying Cloud is that we actually exacerbate the gaps between the haves and have-nots in our community in terms of learning opportunities. So, if we’re only catering to those schools that have the time, bandwidth, and money to bring Flying Cloud in, we are contributing to the problem. Where these gaps of opportunity exist in our community, we fill them with a two-fold strategy. 

The first is exactly what you just described. We try to hire people who represent diverse communities and bring in volunteers, sometimes from as far away as Rochester, Syracuse, and Boston, who can work with our youth and represent the population of students in our schools. We also work very closely with organizations such as Volunteers in Medicine, who support our immigrant community in the Berkshires, which is our only growing demographic. It’s crucial that we welcome and celebrate the immigrant children who are coming to our community in ways that encourage them to see themselves as successful, curious, creative humans and help them achieve a sense of belonging within the culture that already exists here while sharing their cultures as well. 

The second way is creating more access by bringing our programs to where the youth who otherwise would not have these experiences are already living, learning, and working. Instead of children coming to Flying Cloud, we bring our work to where the families and youth already are. We develop deep partnerships with our public schools, healthcare community, public officials, and wonderful organizations like the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, as well as our fellow providers like Greenagers. 

Those partnerships create access points for Flying Cloud to reach youth and families who might not otherwise be able to engage deeply with these programs because of barriers like transportation, food security, and childcare. We want to make transformational change, and that means developing relationships over time and showing up in our children’s lives over a period of years, not just on a weekend. 

Over 80% of our programs are free, which is a big part of our commitment to diversity and access. We also offer financial aid for all tuition programs. To fund this organization, we need to fundraise from scratch starting every January. Every dollar that we raise goes directly back into the community. 

Has Flying Cloud been able to incorporate Indigenous wisdom into its mission as it pertains to natural processes and observation of the natural world?

Yes! We have an ethnobotanist on staff who is also one of our scientist educators. She started with Flying Cloud when she was five and was inspired by it to become an ethnobotanist. That’s exactly what we want to reflect. All of the Indigenous people who were here before us and who we honor were the scientists who were exploring and coming up with the questions and investigations to make a life of meaning. They were the engineers who were building solutions to the problems of living in this area and this climate, and, above all, they were the artists who were coming up with creative ways to express the human experience of living in this beautiful land that we now share. It goes beyond the land acknowledgment to actually acknowledging the people.  

We have learned so much about that tradition as a community of educators. They were using direct experience with their youth. This is how we make meaning and share wisdom and creativity across a people and a time. And to me, those methods of education need to be honored just as much as the fact that indigenous people owned this land. 

You mentioned bringing back your graduates to teach and mentor. I love the snowball effect of Flying Cloud. You keep accumulating people and bringing them back, so the snowball grows bigger over time and picks up more mass and momentum. How do you cultivate that model and organizational culture?

A lot of institutions make what I think is a key mistake by thinking that when a participant ages out or finishes with the services, they’re gone. Bringing them back again keeps them involved. When they come back, you can build a network that spreads into spaces you didn’t originally imagine. 

That’s how you hold the culture, which can sustain itself over time. We stay in a relationship with people as they change. And as you and the organization change and grow, so does the relationship, but you’re always centered on the relationship. • 

Visit for more information about Flying Cloud, to help celebrate its 40th anniversary, and to donate to its programs.