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Tsongas Industrial History Center Turns 20

UMass Lowell, National Park Celebrate Partnership

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Tsongas Industrial History Center Director Sheila Kirschbaum says more science and engineering activities are being incorporated into the center’s programs.

By Jill Gambon

During the 19th century, hundreds of workers poured into Lowell’s Boott Cotton Mills every workday to operate the carding, spinning and weaving machinery that made Lowell a hub of the Industrial Revolution. While the cloth manufacturing is long gone, the mills thrive today as interactive classrooms where students from around the region come to learn about industrialization, immigration, science and engineering.

That hands-on learning is offered through the Tsongas Industrial History Center (TIHC), a unique partnership between UMass Lowell’s Graduate School of Education and the Lowell National Historical Park, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. Its programs include workshops and field trips for school groups and teacher training focusing on Lowell’s role in the Industrial Revolution. 

“The Tsongas Industrial History Center is a great success story for both the National Park Service and the Graduate School of Education at UMass Lowell,” Chancellor Marty Meehan said at an Oct. 14 event that kicked off the center’s anniversary celebration.  

"A Living Legacy"

The center was named for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, a lifelong Lowell resident who was instrumental in creating the Lowell National Historical Park. Today, it is a living legacy of Tsongas’ vision for the city. “Senator Tsongas believed that to rebuild itself as a thriving city, Lowell had to form economic and educational partnerships,” Meehan said.

“This is a project that Paul held dear to his heart,” Thaleia Tsongas Schlesinger, Paul Tsongas’ twin sister, told the crowd of about 100 at the kick-off event.

Since it opened its doors, more than 1 million students and teachers have taken part in TIHC programs. Visiting students weave cloth, work on an assembly line, measure the water quality of the Merrimack River and design canal systems. TIHC educators also visit schools to teach lessons on such topics as the life of a mill worker or the typhoid epidemic that swept through Lowell in 1890. The center also offers training, curriculum plans and professional development workshops for teachers. 

An Evolving Mission

Over the center’s 20-year history, its mission has evolved, said Anita Greenwood, interim dean of the Graduate School of Education. “When the partnership began, the TIHC was envisioned as serving only K-12 students, but we came to realize how important the center and the park are to a UMass Lowell education,” Greenwood said. “Now many UMass Lowell faculty members bring their students to the center to enhance their course work. I envision even greater involvement as we expand our programming to include more STEM-focused [science, technology, engineering and math] work.” 

Some programs are being retooled to meet the growing demand for more science and engineering-centered activities, said Sheila Kirschbaum, who was recently named the center’s director.  Toward that end, the center is collaborating with the University’s Future Engineers Center to overhaul its Invention Factories program and incorporate more engineering design skills.  The center wants to attract more secondary school students, especially those who might not otherwise be drawn to math or science, Kirschbaum said.   
To mark its 20th anniversary, the center has planned a series of events and activities that will be held throughout the school year for students, teachers and the public. The line-up includes this month’s Carbon Smarts Conference at UMass Lowell’s Inn & Conference Center; “An Evening with the Mill Girls of Lowell” performance in March; a lecture by historical fiction author Katherine Paterson in May; museum exhibits, movies; and more.