STEAM powered

by | Jul 11, 2018 | Alumni Network, Summer 2018 | 0 comments

The arts have long been an important part of campus life and curriculum at Mines, but alumni recruiting students often find that they’re unaware of all the school has to offer.

“Their second most frequent question after asking about engineering degrees is, “What can I do here besides pure academic stuff? Do you have a band, a music program, a way for me to do art?’” said Alumni Association Board Vice President Ray Priestley ’79, who has worked closely with Admissions for many years. 

To connect students with the school’s many talented alumni and encourage the dimension of creative thinking the arts lend to engineering, Priestley and other faculty and alumni recently formed the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) interest group. 

The interest group wants to introduce students to its diverse assortment of artistic alumni, who range from French horn and cello players to writers, photographers and museum curators. It also wants to honor alumni accomplishments. “We know their technological achievements, but we want to recognize their artistic achievements, too,” said Bob Klimek, director of the music program at Mines and a member of the group.

Producing creative engineers

Historically, engineering and the arts were intertwined, the preeminent example being Leonardo da Vinci, who was not only an artist but also a revolutionary inventor. Plenty of other Renaissance artists were equally versatile, if less famous. But as technology developed, engineering became more specific and purpose-driven, and aesthetic considerations were de-emphasized.

“Now there’s a call to bring art back,” Priestley said. “People want structures that are not just designed for function, but are pleasing and enhance the environment.”

Artistic experience also encourages engineers to think outside the box, a trait valued by employers and recruiters even in a profession known for its exacting standards. “People solve math problems using both sides of the brain,” Klimek said.

Perhaps because Mines attracts students already interested in the arts or perhaps because the arts are included in their studies, Mines graduates are known for being well-rounded, creative thinkers. 

“They’re more than one-dimensional, tell-me-how-much-concrete-to-pour people,” Klimek said.

Priestley agrees. “A tech industry recruiter recently told me they like to recruit from Mines because of the innovative approach students have shown on the job,” he explained. “They said often engineers from the academies and other top engineering schools tend to do things one way, and they need more innovative design thinking in company programs.”

A cornucopia of the arts 

Mines’ involvement in the arts predates 1908, when the school formed the first school marching band in Colorado. Earlier, students sang in barbershop quartets, Klimek said.

Today, the school gives students a wide variety of options for studying and participating in the arts, both through classes and campus activities.

Mines’ Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) Division offers courses in music technology and acoustical engineering, as well as music theory, creative writing and culture and film studies. STEAM curriculum is also offered in the McBride Honors Program and the J. Don Thorson First-Year Honors Experience. 

Through the Hennebach Program in the Humanities, artists come to Mines to conduct workshops, and visiting liberal arts professors give lectures. Students can also take field trips to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and other local theaters.

In April, Mines opened a new “black box” performing arts space for music and theater productions. The interest group is making arrangements to hold master classes in dance and theater there, as well as a planned lecture by a lawyer versed in the arts and intellectual property law. 

The campus also has many arts-related clubs, including a theater group, an improv club, an award-winning competitive tango dance team and clubs for photography and creative writing. There’s also the Creative Arts Club, which painted a mural at the school’s Center for Technology and Learning Media and produces sidewalk chalk art to beautify the campus. The STEAM Interest Group is forming relationships with all of these clubs to get them involved with the group and to help promote their own activities.

And of course, there’s High Grade, Mines’ award-winning literary journal, in circulation since 1976. The STEAM Interest Group recently held a reception for the publication, which nearly 150 alumni, students, faculty and staff attended. More than 40 of those attendees signed up to join the group.

Learning about other cultures abroad

The interest group’s highlight so far has been a trip to Vietnam in March, organized with help from Klimek, who has taken music students on many international trips, and Khanh Vu ’93, a former instructor at Mines who is now the executive director of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers.

Students, alumni and faculty on the trip watched a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show, in which marionette-like figures of fairy-tale heroes and mythical animals prance about and dive into a surface of water, manipulated by operators behind a screen. The performance was accompanied by music and singing.

“We didn’t understand a word, but we really enjoyed the show,” said Michael Pierce ’90, who went on the trip with his wife,
Tina Pierce ’89. 

The group attended another musical show that included acrobatic performances and scenes about rural Vietnamese life. They visited the home of a renowned instrumentalist, who played tunes on traditional flutes and stringed instruments accompanied by family members. After the performance, the family invited the curious engineers and students to try out the instruments on their own. 

Michael Pierce tried the đàn bầu, a deceptively simple-looking one-stringed instrument that, when plucked correctly, produces notes along harmonic frequencies. “It has a unique sound, and it’s extremely difficult to play,” Pierce said.

Because the group was so interested, the performer later brought a box of bamboo flutes to sell to them at their hotel.

To incorporate engineering into the trip, the group toured a Procter & Gamble plant that makes razors and diapers.

Some of the production processes were complex. “I never knew how difficult it was to manufacture disposable diapers,” Priestley said. 

Other processes involved more manual labor than is typical in the U.S. For example, razors were packaged entirely by hand, but workers appreciated having a job in the factory because it had air conditioning. “It was a real eye-opener from a cultural perspective,” Michael Pierce said.

Gaining cultural and artistic perspective for a region is invaluable to engineers, Vu said. “If you’re working on a bridge or dam or drilling an oil well, you need to take the culture into consideration. Part of that is the arts, which expresses what the community values.”

STEAM hopes to host more cultural exchanges. It will also sponsor campus events, including a juried photography show featuring work by talented students and alumni.

Participating in STEAM allows alumni to inspire students who want to be creative thinkers and show them it’s possible to pursue artistic goals along with an engineering career.

For practicing engineers, the interest group stimulates fresh ideas. According to Priestley, “It gets us traditional thinkers to think outside the box.” 

To get involved with the STEAM Interest Group or learn more about other interest groups, visit