Playing with fire: Mines students learn the art and science of glassblowing

by | Oct 8, 2018 | Fall 2018, Feature Stories | 0 comments

When many think of blown glass, images of master artisans and the delicate, colorful objects they shape from hot, glowing orbs often spring to mind. Yet while glassblowing is often an artistic pursuit, there is also a concrete science behind the art form, which Mines students are now able to understand firsthand.

Mines’ new glass shop—housed in the foundry in the basement of Hill Hall on campus—allows Mines students to learn the craft of glassblowing while studying the material’s properties and the applications of glass in everyday life.

Bringing glassblowing to campus

The idea of a glass shop was first introduced to campus about a year ago by Jake Ivy, a materials science PhD student, and his advisor, Associate Professor Geoff Brennecka. Ivy first took up glassblowing as an undergraduate at the Missouri University of Science and Technology and, with Brennecka, started brainstorming how they could introduce glassblowing into the Mines curriculum and take advantage of the foundry facilities.

“One of the things Mines is known for is the hands-on experiences students are able to get here, and being able to blow glass was another opportunity to take advantage of the expertise and facilities we already have to give students the chance to not only play around with hot glass and learn how materials work in a different sort of setting but also to express a little bit of their artistic side,” Brennecka said. 

Ivy started by creating a list of the equipment they would need, and Brennecka worked on getting the appropriate funding. The Materials Research Society provided the funds to purchase the initial smelting tank, and a tech fee provided for the rest of the smaller tools. Students also contributed by building additional tools as their EPICS projects.

The glass shop also enlisted the help of Mines’ Keramos chapter, a ceramics-focused professional fraternity, to oversee and maintain the facility. “We have to look after the equipment and staffing side of the glass shop, keep up with running the shop on a day-to-day basis and make sure trained gaffers are at events,” said Kelsey Cannon, president of Keramos.

Soon Mines had a fully operational glass shop ready to be put to use. Yet, Brennecka and Ivy knew they didn’t want the space to be used just for fun.

“I thought it would be good for Mines, because it’s a place where we work really hard but like to have fun on the side,” Brennecka said. “Usually that fun involves some sort of work as well, and this a good example of being able to merge the two.”

Teaching the science behind the art

The combination of the technical with the artistic came to fruition in the form of a new class added to the Mines curriculum this fall. Students visit the glass shop for a couple of hours each week to try their hand at glassblowing and learn the techniques for shaping glass into a desired shape. Then, they attend Brennecka’s lecture to learn about the properties behind the material they shaped.

“We have plenty of lab time to go down and actually work with the glass and see how the material behaves and understand and see some of the physical properties and optical properties changing,” Brennecka explained. “And then we go into the lecture and actually discuss all the physics behind it: how viscosity changes with temperature and what that means in terms of glass structure and atomic arrangements, where colors come from and what sort of interactions are happening to give various optical effects in the glass—those kinds of topics.”

Each section of the lab, led by teaching assistants who were trained by Ivy in a pilot course over the previous year, walks two or three students through the glassblowing process. Working with a furnace that runs at 1,100 degrees Celsius, students start out making solid objects such as paperweights and small sculptures and eventually advance to hollow items, such as cups and vases. They also learn how to overlay colors and add handles, wraps and more complex details to add creative touches to their pieces.

While glassblowing takes a fair amount of practice, students tend to pick it up quickly. “Nobody is good right at the beginning,” said Bobby Puerling, a metallurgical and materials engineering student and teaching assistant. “It’s really fun seeing people finally have it click and have them start to understand how things work properly, how you need to have [glass] at different heats for different things you’re doing, different ways of working the glass. It’s really fun seeing that progress.” 

Puerling assists with two sections of the glassblowing lab, each with two students. He walks them through how to use the tools—one of which, the pipe cooler, he actually helped make as his EPICS II project—and then the basic techniques students need to know to make any sort of object.

When outlining the course, Brennecka and Ivy recognized the opportunity of making it available to students across campus, not just those studying metallurgical and materials engineering who would have the most practical applications for the knowledge acquired in the class. 

“There is always value, I think, in having as many people involved with almost any project as you can,” Ivy said. “There is certainly a lot of practical experience for MME students to be able to come down and work with hot glass because that’s what they’re learning about, but that is not to say that a chemical engineering student or mechanical engineer wouldn’t have just as much fun and learn just as much from having access to this equipment and learning how different materials respond to different pressures.”

Ivy said the class also teaches students how to be effective leaders and collaborators. “As we go through the process of teaching people how to work with glass, we’re also trying to teach them to think on their feet a little bit and how to work together and talk to each other,” he said. “When you’re making something in the glass shop that requires more than one set of hands, you have to communicate.”

Thinking beyond the glass shop

Despite the artistic components of glassblowing, Brennecka said learning the technical aspects of the material is valuable to understanding much of the technology in use today. Glass is one of the most-used materials in the world, from container glass such as beer bottles and window glass to the fiber optics that carry the backbone of the internet and the tiny components that make up wireless communication devices.

“Glass itself is another class of materials, like metals and ceramics and polymers, that’s ubiquitous,” Brennecka said. “It’s everywhere, but we don’t necessarily think about it.”

Brennecka thinks knowing how to manipulate the properties of glass gives students a new perspective on the materials they interact with every day. “I think the idea they can appreciate is that there was some thought that went into designing the material to have whatever properties it has, and it’s just one avenue to get them thinking there’s more to glass or there’s more to metal or there’s more to any material that’s out there than just what meets the eye,” Brennecka said. “It’s not even about knowing. It’s about thinking and asking.”

The future looks bright for the glass shop, judging by the passion and dedication from the students who have already been trained to use the new equipment.

“It’s just a great way to play with fire,” Ivy said. “Everyone’s got a bit of a pyromaniac inside of them, because almost everything we do encounters extreme heat at some point in the process, whether that’s putting a piece of ceramic or metal into a high-temperature furnace—something that goes over a thousand degrees Celsius—oftentimes is a great way to literally touch a material that hot.” 

This is certainly true for Puerling, who finds he has a hard time staying away and dedicating time to his other studies. “The biggest challenge of the glass shop, at least for me, is not being here all the time,” Puerling said. “I love it so much—I’m down here as much as I can.”

Hill Hall Hot Shop

As part of the Hill Hall Hot Shop, the glass shop is just one of several opportunities for students to get hands-on practice with materials. Learn more about the facilities available for students to learn about materials at metallurgy.mines.edu/facilities.

Foundry

The foundry offers opportunities for students to cast molten metal. It also hosts Free Pour Fridays for anyone across campus to experience sand casting to make an aluminum object.

Glass Shop

Students are able to try their hand at glassblowing and can take a new glassblowing class to learn more about the craft and the science behind it. It also hosts Soda Lime Saturdays for anyone on campus to shape their own glass object.

Forge

Students get the chance to experience blacksmithing and can take a new forging and forming class to expose them to different possibilities within the metals industry.

Check out our video about the glass shop to see students in action and learn more about the new glassblowing class.