Faculty Take on History, Animation and Southeast Asian Folktales

Ferrous Park includes an open-air classroom on top of a hill overlooking the mills. Image by Katharine Webster
Ferrous Park includes an outdoor classroom on top of a small hill overlooking the Merrimack River and former textile mills in Lawrence.

By Katharine Webster

Faculty and research centers in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have won three Creative Economy grants from the office of UMass President Martin Meehan. The grants will fund educational projects that benefit Lawrence and Lowell.

The Creative Economy Fund was established in 2007 by the UMass President’s Office to support faculty projects in the humanities, arts and social sciences that benefit the economy and enhance the community’s quality of life.

Water Pollution Pioneers

History Prof. Chad Montrie won $22,182 for his “Urban Waters Revolution” proposal to provide school lesson plans and educational signs for a new park in Lawrence at the confluence of the Spicket and Merrimack rivers, working with Groundwork Lawrence, Lawrence Heritage State Park and the Essex Art Center.

Ferrous Park was once the site of a laboratory where Ellen Swallow Richards, the first female student and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped plan early experiments in municipal water and sewage treatment. Those experiments enabled Lawrence to become the first city in the country to filter all its water to prevent disease.

Before the lab opened, Richards and a junior colleague, Thomas Messinger Drown, had performed a water quality survey of the entire state, collecting about 100,000 water samples. Richards tested 40,000 of them and created the first water purity tables, a milestone in public health.

“She created the first water quality standards in the world,” Montrie says, but Drown got the official credit.

The lesson plans and signs will focus on history and Richards’ role, the science of clean water and art. The grant also will fund the first annual Ellen Swallow Richards Lecture, which will be given by MIT Prof. Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science, on Sept. 15.

The confluence of the Spicket and Merrimack rivers in Lawrence. Image by Katharine Webster
The Spicket flows into the Merrimack at the former site of a pioneering water quality research lab.

Animation Nation

In high school in Iran, Asst. Prof. of Art and Design Pouya Afshar was required to study math and physics instead of art. After his family immigrated to the United States, he attended the California Institute of the Arts as an undergraduate and, as a teaching assistant, helped run animation workshops for middle and high school students in Los Angeles. 

Now he will use his $18,669 Creative Economy grant to start a similar program at Lowell High School.

“I didn’t get to study what I wanted in high school, and I see how rewarding it is for high school students to follow their passions and get to do what they want,” he says.

Afshar will work with faculty in the Graduate School of Education to train and supervise three Art & Design undergraduates as student instructors each semester. The students will get credit, a stipend and teaching experience, while training 30 to 40 high school students. 

The classes will start with short projects and culminate with a longer animated film. University music students will write original soundtracks, while the Lowell High students will edit the soundtracks and sound effects into the film.

The idea is to provide the high school students with an outlet for self-expression, while teaching professional skills to those interested in a career in digital media. 

“The final film is going to be a group project and it’s going to be based on an idea they come up with about their life in Lowell,” Afshar says. “We’re going to encourage them to think about their environment, where they live, their culture, their society.”

Southeast Asian Folktales

Faculty in the Center for Asian American Studies won a $23,750 grant to collect, illustrate and publish folktales from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) for use in the Lowell public schools, where 30 percent of pupils, or more than 4,100 children, are Asian Americans, according to the state Department of Education. Nearly all are Southeast Asians, as Lowell has the second-largest community of Cambodian immigrants in the nation.

“A narrative is a way of making sense of experience,” says Psychology Prof. Allyssa McCabe, who studies the role of narrative development in children’s literacy. “We want to prepare these stories both because the content will engage students who are at risk of dropping out, as are many Southeast Asian American students, and so that the stories make sense to them on a very deep level.”

Asst. Prof. Phitsamay Uy and her son. Image by John Wren
Phitsamay Uy, an assistant professor of education, with her son. She hopes to remedy a lack of children's books about Southeast Asians.

The project began when two faculty members in the Graduate School of Education, Asst. Prof. Phitsamay Uy and Assoc. Prof. MinJeong Kim, each had a child of her own. They started talking about the difficulty of finding children’s books about the cultures their families came from or the experiences of Asian American immigrants, especially Southeast Asians.

Kim was working with a Cambodian American kindergarten teacher at the Bartlett School who collected Khmer stories for use in her classroom, and Uy and McCabe were already collecting Southeast Asian stories for their research. They sometimes found self-published books at conferences. 

But teachers didn’t have access to these books and stories or training in how to use them effectively. New state teacher evaluation standards require teachers to engage with families and the community. Uy and Kim saw a huge need – and an opportunity to involve families who are often shy about working with the schools because of language and cultural differences.

“These families have lots to offer,” Uy says. “Our immigrant communities all have stories they grow up with.”

The researchers will invite university and Lowell High School students and their parents to community gatherings and ask them to recount folktales and their own experiences as immigrants. They will select six to 12 of the best tales, work with local authors to write them up and find university art students to illustrate them. Then they will publish the picture books and train Lowell teachers to incorporate them into the curriculum. They will also publish stories about immigrant experiences to use with upper elementary school children. 

Uy will evaluate whether the community process helps the parents and schools work together better, Kim will follow the teachers for a year to evaluate how they’re using the books and McCabe will study the impact on children. They hope their work will serve as a model for other schools and communities.

“Folk tales are very moral-centered and culturally rich, so these folktales and multicultural children’s books can be used as part of teaching critical thinking skills and multicultural awareness under the Common Core standards – not just for this population, but for all kids,” Kim says.