NEW MARLBOROUGH --Thirty years ago, Jane Burke had an idea to offer a summer program to teach kids in her small town about pottery with an approach as focused on the science of clay and glazes, as much as the aesthetics.
A few years earlier, in 1980, she and Lawrence Burke, along with David Schwarz founded the Flying Cloud Institute as a center for community education specializing in environmental education, energy and land conservation, and the arts.
Previously intending to study dance and anthropology, Jane Burke developed a passion for chemistry, teaching and, after working in a classroom for a number of years, fell in love with ceramics. She began combining the arts and sciences in her instruction and own work.
"I just thought I was an odd person," she said. Then, six years ago, while attending a conference in Cambridge at Lesley University, she heard the acronym STEAM, standing for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
"I remember thinking, well what do you know? That's what I've been doing. I hadn't been reading about it, just doing it. It was very interesting to be around people who had thought about this in an academic way. We were doing it in an intuitive way," Burke said.
Which is why, though times have changed, and the size and scope of projects have changed, the fundamental approach of teaching science in a hands-on, arts-based approach has remained the same.
Today, Flying Cloud's summer program is known as SMArt: Science Meets Art.
Shannon Lee, 13, is a student at the Great Barrington Rudolph Steiner School.
The girl said she's "really interested in science" but "not the greatest artist."
"At least I didn't think so much, but it turned out to be fun. I learned a lot," she said.
Lee and her partner, Maya Levisohn, were challenged to build a robot that worked using ultrasonic, touch and color sensors.
"They just handed us a brain [for the robot] and told us to build something," Lee said.
The two girls combined their interests in movement -- Lee likes to swim and Levisohn likes to dance -- and they developed a robot that moves like an inch worm. After building it with the proper sensors and circuits to allow it to move, they created a green costume to cover the robotic-looking parts, and gave it a leaf-like set to move around in.
"It felt really awesome to see it complete. We were really surprised it actually worked and actually inched. When we finished we started laughing because it looked so cute," Lee said.
Burke said it's young people like the Lees and Levisohn, who will help concepts like STEAM to be truly successful and meaningful and have an impact on society.
"I get frustrated that STEAM is being misused in some contexts," said Burke. "Marine biology is not making whales out of clay. Science through the arts is making pigments, making cameras, programming robots to dance, having students making their own clay and smashing rocks to see if their composites can reach a melting point in a kiln."
She said the goal of SMArt and other STEAM programs should be to teach students "to discover the meaning by doing it themselves" and not just following instructions to get the "right" answer.
Burke said that SMArt has now become a sort of laboratory program where a wide range of explorations can take place, and the most engaging activities can be adapted and presented in the more than two dozen local schools and other Syouth programs Flying Cloud partners with.
"The process is about getting students to feel empowered about their own ideas ... to make hard concepts in math and science accessible through the arts ... and to have them do things like engineering and geometry without them even realizing it," Burke said.
To learn more about Flying Cloud Institute, visit http://flyingcloudinstitute.org or call (413) 229-3321.