Old Art and New Science Meld in Collegiate Glassblowing Program

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Students at the Salem Community College in Alloway, New Jersey are learning to master the centuries-old art of glassblowing. But to these college kids, glassblowing is more than just an art: it can provide researchers with the valuable scientific tools they need in order to make cutting-edge advancements in their fields.

The invention of glassblowing can be traced back to the establishment of the Roman Empire. Prior to this, making glass was a slow and limited process. The Romans discovered that molten glass could be gathered on the end of a pipe in order to be inflated and then shaped — thus creating the concept of glassblowing.

The college’s glassblowing program is the only one of its kind in the entire nation. Although glassblowing is undoubtedly a real art, the idea of using the process for something other than what we see at festivals and craft fairs is difficult for some to grasp. But the students in Salem’s program are instructed in a unique curriculum that melds the worlds of art and science.

These glassblowing majors are required to learn the basics of organic chemistry and computer drafting in order to have a fuller understanding of how the tools they make will be used. Within the program, students use their glassblowing skills to make tools for research universities and glass manufacturers.

Because these scientific tools require exact specifications, it’s a craft with no room for error. Program instructional chair, Dennis Briening, says that for a glassmaker, a millimeter is more like a mile. Briening was tasked with creating glassware while holding a tolerance of one-thousandth of an inch — a width thinner than that of a human hair.

Like any discipline, the craft of glassblowing requires an immense amount of practice and dedication. Although it’s a rather unique college offering, the program now has over 100 students, thus doubling its initial enrollment. Many become interested in the program after catching the “glass bug,” but others want to use their craft to make a difference. One student, Neil Messinger, not only loves the tangible artistic process but also hopes to one day be responsible for making the tools that will lead to major strides in cancer research.

Briening highlights the beauty of this art form and its potential to branch out into other fields: “Whatever your imagination is, it can be made.” We can only wait and see how glassblowing may continue on its tradition of technological advancement in new and relevant ways.”

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