Photo courtesy of the
Center for Dynamic Learning (CDL)
A normal day for Beth Cunha is dropping off one of her children at school and then heading to Lower South Providence, where she rents office space at the South Side Boys & Girls Club. She stops to interface with her eight-member, full-time staff and then settles at her desk to look over the day’s schedule to the sound of a basketball bouncing above her head.
Photos courtesy of CDL
Each year her nonprofit offers STEAMM programming (science, technology, engineering, arts, manufacturing and math) and theater arts to approximately 1,800 of the state’s youth, grades K-12.
CDL earned a spot among Providence Business News’ 2014 list of Most Innovative Companies
in the category of education and a 2014 Champion in Action®
award in the category of youth programming by Citizens Bank and NBC 10. It was recognized for Excellence in Manufacturing Education for Youth by the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association in 2013 and has been lauded by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed
Cunha credits her success to “consistently embracing failure” or what she calls “failing forward.”
A two-time RIC graduate, who earned her B.A. in theater in 2003 and an M.F.A. in theater in 2007, she said, “I didn’t have an M.B.A. when I started out. I didn’t know what a business plan was. I learned by doing, and if I didn’t know how to do it, I would find someone who could show me.”
CDL co-founders Beth and Kevin Cunha
After earning her graduate degree, Cunha co-founded the Traveling Theater with her husband Kevin Cunha, a mechatronics engineer. Her work involved going from school to school, providing performing and visual arts enrichment programs.
“I was trying out different workshops, finding out what worked and what didn’t work,” she said.
Later she enlisted additional teaching artists to travel with her throughout the state, providing artistic experiences for youth.
After three years, the Traveling Theater evolved into The Center for Dynamic Learning whose teachers still go out to Rhode Island schools to carry out programming; however, activities are now all STEAMM based.
“The goal of a nonprofit is to address an unmet need in the community, whether it’s enriching a community through culture and education or working with underserved individuals,” said RIC Director of Nonprofit Studies Michael Andrade.
CDL’s award-winning curriculum educates young people in 21st-century, STEAMM skills and helps meet an ongoing statewide need to improve STEAMM education. Youth learn to build machines, construct a hydroponics lab and design and construct historical buildings to scale, among other projects.
And the #STEAMMPowered Theatre program incorporates lessons in STEAMM. While producing the play Pinocchio, children learn the physics behind simple machines, Merlin’s Lab opens the door to chemistry and the Velveteen Rabbit teaches the making and manufacturing of toys.
Rachel Terceira, a RIC youth development and theater major, taught in the #STEAMMPowered Theatre program last semester.
“Early in the program we focus on STEAMM lessons,” Terceira said. “But once the children get their scripts and their roles, we’re running class like a rehearsal. One day we may be focusing on choreography, another day we may be focusing on learning a song or running lines for a scene.”
Henry Barnard School children rehearse STEAMMPowered Theatre production of “Velveteen Rabbit.”
As the weeks pass, the children begin to reveal latent talents, she said. A fifth-grade boy who had never had a leading part surprised everyone with his outstanding singing voice. Terceira was so impressed by his voice that she called his parents and suggested he take voice lessons from one of her former teachers. Now the fifth-grader intends to try out for middle-school chorus.
Another fifth-grader and gifted vocalist, with dreams of becoming a professional performer, was recently cast in Trinity Rep’s production of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Her mother credits CDL for planting the seed that led to her daughter’s passion for the theatrical arts.
CDL also runs a youth workforce training program, which provides 60 to 90 high school students with paid work experiences during the summer while enrolled in CDL career and technical education courses, and all courses are available for college credit. Participants learn the basics of construction, engineering and design and then apply what they’ve learned to a community project. This summer they renovated 10 houses in Lower South Providence.
“If you want to do something different that has a greater impact than just yourself that’s where the nonprofit sector comes in,” Andrade said. “It is also the fastest growing industry in the country.”
Photo courtesy of CDL
Andrade is also a two-time RIC graduate who earned his B.S.W. in 1995 and his M.S.W. in 1999. He is now CEO of The Arc of Bristol County, a nonprofit that serves clients with special needs, and director of the Alan Shawn Feinstein Institute of Philanthropic Studies at RIC. Along with Cunha, Andrade teaches courses in RIC’s Nonprofit Studies Program.
“When the Dean of Social Work and I designed this program, we wanted the courses to be taught by social work faculty and by professional experts drawn from community-based organizations who can teach the practical illustrations,” he said.
“A lot of people think, ‘I want to do something good, so let me open a nonprofit.’ But you need to know how to effectively run an organization and expand upon it to be successful. That’s what we teach in the Nonprofit Studies Program. Moreover, our students are learning from people who lived this work.”
“Each day I get to go to work surrounded by dedicated, passionate and driven individuals whose moral compasses align with the mission of CDL,” said Cunha. “I am blessed to have such an extraordinary team of talented individuals that strives to empower young people to ‘reach beyond the classroom.’ CDL is coming upon its 19th year in 2020 and to date we have served over 5,000 children, many of whom have gone on to pursue careers in the fields of education, engineering, art therapy, performance, design and military service.”
Nonprofit Studies at Rhode Island College may be undertaken concurrently with any degree program or as a free-standing professional development experience. Undergraduates earn the Certificate of Undergraduate Study in Nonprofit Studies and graduate students earn the Certificate of Graduate Study in Nonprofit Leadership Studies.