PITTSFIELD — Maria Rundle has been a big-city union organizer, a small-town school committee member, the development director for a residential therapeutic facility in the Berkshires and an instructor in an alternative education program at a public school in Ithaca, N.Y.
That's a pretty varied educational resume. But, it has come in handy at Rundle's current position. Since 2017, the Richmond native has been executive director of the Flying Cloud Institute in Great Barrington, which provides a variety of educational programs for young people in various formats that use science and art — two seemingly contradictory disciplines — to inspire creativity in its students.
Flying Cloud mixes art into the traditional STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — curriculum to make STEAM, which is how the institute's academic program is described on its website.
We spoke with the Monterey resident recently about how Flying Cloud mixes art and science together, her transition from union organizing to education, why Flying Cloud has been able to keep its programs running during the coronavirus pandemic, and ways to bridge the gender gap in STEM.
Q: Flying Cloud is described on your website as a place where "science meets art." How do you fuse those concepts together?
A: We feel like science and art are perfectly complementary, and they bring out the best in our young learners.
A lot of kids get the idea that there's right and wrong in science in a way that they don't internalize when they're doing art. And that's really key to having scientists and engineers who have elastic and creative minds. Scientists and engineers need to approach their work and how we make meaning out of our world the same way that artists approach the creative ways in the things that they are doing.
The other thing that's really important, especially when thinking through how the high-stakes testing system has affected our public education system, is to look at what's the alternative. Being able to teach about physics and engineering and then ask students to express creatively in the form of sculpture or dance about what it is they've learned about these concepts means students have a chance to express their learning in creative ways.
Q: How do you accomplish that?
A: We will bring in a physicist to work with kids on learning the specific state standards for physics in their grade. And they'll do that through hands-on investigations.
Then we will bring in a sculptor, and we'll have the kids work with the sculptor to come up with original pieces that showcase all of the different Newton's laws of energy and motion that they've learned about. What they'll do is use their sculptures to reach out to other kids in their school about what they've learned about these science concepts.
Q: How does an English major in college become a union organizer?
A: I've always been very interested in social justice. And I was lucky enough to meet a union organizer when I went to college (Binghamton University in New York) who invited me into that world.
What I saw very quickly is that there's no faster way for people to change their own lives in meaningful ways than to work collaboratively with the people who also share a stake in their future. It was incredibly empowering to work with women in Chicago who found their voice through the organizing movement and became stronger, more-capable people who no longer felt alone with what they were struggling with. That was fantastic; it was a great experience.
Q: So, why did you go back into education?
A: A big part of it is that union organizing really takes 24 hours a day for 30 days out of a month. I also knew that I was very interested in having a family and participating in my community in many other ways, and that I was also always passionate about education.
Q: How have you been able to keep Flying Cloud's programs active during the pandemic?
A: I'm so proud of my staff. They pivoted without a hitch into providing virtual learning.
We were in 11 schools doing so many different programs. ... Suddenly, we no longer had access to the teachers and the students we were working with, and by March 16  our staff had a completely virtual program up and running. ... Then, we were among one of the very first organizations in the county and in the state to work in-person with youth in July.
Q: How challenging has it been this year, with so many school districts adopting hybrid learning schedules?
A: I was on the reopening task force for Southern Berkshire, and towards the end of the summer it became obvious that our two local school districts [in South County] were not going to open. We do not have child care options in South County. It felt like this tsunami was bearing down on families, where they were not going to have a place where they could send their kids. ...
So, we created a collaboration with Volunteers in Medicine, Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Greenagers and the Flying Deer Nature Center to run 10 [outdoor] learning hubs for the children of health care workers, social workers, immigrant families and educators. ...
We worked with Smitty [state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli] so we could find a way to establish the program under the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education standards. ... We ran every single day. ... Even when schools had to go fully remote, we stayed open because we were outdoors.
Q: Even in the winter?
A: We were able to provide our families with the appropriate winter gear thanks to a tremendous organizing effort. We had hot soup and chili donated so we could do this every day ... we zipped hot water bottles into snowsuits. ...
We figured it out. We learned. I guess that's the story. We had a creative mindset and a collaborative commitment to making this happen, which is the bedrock of Flying Cloud's philosophy on learning.
Q: Your Young Women in Science program marked its 20th anniversary last year. Why is there still such a gender gap in STEM careers between males and females?
A: We have not figured out why it is that when girls, on average, reach the age of 9 their identification of being STEM-capable suddenly drops off, and then when they're in eighth grade their identification for being STEM-capable goes off another cliff.
Then when we actually do have young women who are actually successful academically in STEM, why it doesn't translate into careers in engineering, physics and computer programming. And why, when you do have women who follow careers in engineering, physics and computer programming, we often see them leave the field within the first five years.
So, we have just this pathway full of hurdles and obstacles for girls and women.
Q: How is Flying Cloud trying to solve it?
A: Research tells us that when we have these interventions with children and we are there supporting them in specific ways when they're 9, again when they're in the eighth grade and again when they make the transition out of high school, we can disrupt some of the cultural messaging they're getting that STEM isn't for them.
One of the strongest ways we can do that is through mentorship. Another way is through strong hands-on experience.
In previous generations, we've been excited about competitive STEM events like math competitions and robotics wars. What they've found is, there's something like a twentyfold increase in female participation if you shift STEM pursuits from being competitive to being collaborative and solving community problems.
Those are the three things we do in our Flying Cloud program to disrupt this idea that STEM isn't for girls.