DILLON, Mont. — Students at the University of Montana Western in Dillon are learning the intricacies of creating glass objects to be used as artistic pieces or useful tools.
UM Western is the only four-year institution in the country that offers a degree with a scientific glass specialization.
Students can earn a one-year certificate, a two-year associate's degree, a minor or a Bachelor of Arts degree in glass.
In this week's Montana Moment, we meet assistant professor of glass and 3-D arts Michael Hengler and his class.
Hengler was classically trained in the study of artistic glassblowing all over Europe. He studied in Italy, the Czech Republic, Malta, Germany and Austria.
For many of us, it's images of that elegant European glass work that may come to mind when we think about glassblowing.
But when Hengler was at the University of Oregon a geophysicist needed glass work rendered for a scientific project.
"I got experience as a glassblower there," he said. " Then, when I went to the University of Hawaii for my graduate work, they caught wind that I had experience, and I ended up being the scientific glassblower for the University of Hawaii."
Now he shares his knowledge of artistic and scientific glassblowing with his students at Western.
"Whether it's in the artistic or scientific realm," he said, "I think it's an easy material to fall in love with."
This is the inaugural academic year for the glass program at UMW.
"We already have 10 degree-seeking students in glass," said Hengler.
We met senior Tony Lokason as she she worked on a project.
"I want to get my masters of fine arts and teach eventually," she said. "I'm mainly interested in artistic torch work. But I do enjoy scientific because it makes my artistic better."
Junior Jarred Moore is working for a degree in environmental science with a glass minor. He wants to set up an internship with a laboratory in Idaho Falls and get a job in scientific glassblowing.
"Scientific glassblowing is all about precision," said Moore, "learning how glass can fall in different areas to precisely make instruments and apparatuses."
To get an idea of the precision necessary to produce scientific glassware we visited Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton.
Dr. Erin Foster does quality control at RML. She makes sure scientists have the proper glassware for their work.
"For scientific research," she said, "it's imperative that the glass work be very precise for their experiments so they can be repeated."
Hengler said that precision can be as tight as a thousandth of a millimeter.
"It gives us an idea," he said, "of what it requires of us as scientific glassblowers so scientists can have successful experiments."
He said a large percentage of scientific glassblowers are aging and moving into retirement.
"Industry is wondering how that vacuum is going to be filled," he said. " I think Western is going to do a great job filling that void."
Moore's dad is an artist who works in iron.
"So I had some of the skill sets," said Moore, "and it just really clicked for me."
Hengler said his students learn to interact with the glass. He calls it a dance.
"You've got to play with the gravity, centrifugal force and timing," he said. "It's very much analogous to a dance."
The glass classes at Western may be an incubator of creative thought that open doors to creativity, careers and personal happiness.