Campus News

View Year

Juniata Glass Class Reshapes Traditional Courses

(Posted February 21, 2011)

David Reingold, professor of chemistry, demonstrates glassblowing techniques in his course.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- David Reingold casually fires up one of the torches and holds a piece of glass to the flame. It starts to lose shape and turns white hot. As the tube starts to melt inward and collapse on itself he puts it to his lips and blows a quick breath into it. A molten glass bubble forms. So that's why it is called glass blowing.

This isn't a science class at Juniata College nor is it strictly an art class -- it's a hybrid mix. Juniata's studio is tucked away in a small room in a nondescript corner of the basement in the Von Liebig Center for Science. There are five blowtorches facing the wall, a few stools, and industrial-looking machinery filling up the rest of the room. Juniata currently offers two sections of glassblowing each spring, making the class available to 10 students each year.

Glass blowing is a skilled art form put into practical scientific application. Glass art and science departments have a lot more common history than might be expected. Most university science departments used to have in-house glass blowers. These artisans would make repairs on cracked or broken glass equipment and also create specialty items that were either very expensive or not available on the market.

As glassware became more available and the Internet took over, in-house glass blowers became an outdated job description. The plethora of easily available products online replaced most science departments' in-house blower.

Juniata has had a glass blowing shop since at least 1965. Reingold, professor of chemistry at Juniata, has been teaching it on campus for the past 15 years, but first became interested in glass blowing 30 years ago at Haverford College, when he took his first class with an associate professor. He was hooked.

"Fish, ships, wine glasses, and roses are all popular."
David Reingold, professor of chemistry

"Are there mishaps very often? Or are we just talking an occasional singed eyebrow?" Reingold , says jokingly. His tone turns serious as he adds, "If you look on the ground you'll probably see blood. A student sliced his thumb open pretty bad on a piece of glass last week. Everyone will burn and cut themselves at least once. It comes with the territory."

All students have to wear safety glasses at all times. The glasses are not those awkward, clunky, cover-three-quarters-of-your-face plastic frames. They are kind of a strange Ray-Ban sunglasses knock-off. The sunglasses are necessary not just to protect your face from the occasional sparks, but also because without the tint of the glasses the glass turns such a brilliant white no one would be able to see what they are working on.

Students start work by learning how to make or repair basic lab glassware. One of the first things they make is a condenser, which is basically several tubes fused together.

"When else am I going to have the opportunity to do this?" says Hannah Frank, a senior from Altoona, Pa. "It's not something most people get to do every day. I just really want to move forward so I can make a fish and say, like, look what I did!"

From there they have freedom to make their own projects. "Fish, ships, wine glasses, and roses are all popular," Reingold says. " The display case outside boasts a fantastic, delicate little Spanish ship, several flawless wine glasses, and a little multicolored angelfish.

Even though the course is chemistry related, there are no science prerequisites to take it. There also isn't a correlation between innate science skills and glass-blowing prowess. Reingold explains, "I've had some really brilliant science students in my class who suck at blowing glassâ?¦I mean, terrible. In our class of five two are usually pretty good, two are pretty bad, and sometimes one is really great."

Reingold explains that he hopes teaching this skill set to students will help them add value for themselves and to their careers. As for the continuing need for glass blowers? It's often cost-effective to send back relatively low cost items to be fixed. However, if a student can fix it on spot they can potentially save a great deal of money over time. Plus, he adds, "Students have a lot of fun with it and learn something useful."

Written by Caitlin Bigelow, senior


Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.