Mines News

Release Date Friday, July 15, 2022

Mines Students Studying Materials Science Use Local Clay to Make Art and Pottery

A replica of a vintage figurine statue of the university mascot, Grubby, made by Mines students using all local clay materials.     

South Dakota Mines students in the Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering (MET) got their hands dirty in a unique National Science Foundation funded project designed to delve into both the art and science behind local clay pottery and ceramics.

Student teams, enrolled in the junior-level design course, were challenged to create glazed pottery using minerals found in the Black Hills. They were tasked to look at tests made on various clays gathered from locations around the area: Tower Road, Corral Drive, Sturgis Road and at the Pacer Minerals facility in the town of Custer. Students then had to process the samples in ways to make them most useful for both pottery and glazes. The course was part of the new Art & Engineering curriculum being developed in the MET department at Mines.

The core disciplines in materials and metallurgical engineering focus on how the chemical makeup and nanostructure of various metals and materials impact their overall properties. Metallurgical and materials engineers seek to find the best ways to process materials and metals into valuable products. These fields of study have broad applications across many industries, and the Mines degree in metallurgical engineering was just named the most unique major in South Dakota by College Raptor.

“For many students, this is the first class where they have an open-ended problem,” says Katrina Donovan, Ph.D., in the Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering at Mines. “We told them to design a ceramic product, and we did not tell them what the product had to be; they had to engage their creative brains to come up with both the right questions and the right answers to the problems they encountered.”

Refining Pottery Clay
These photos show one process a team used to refine dirt into pottery clay.


Mines artist in residence Deborah Mitchell worked alongside Matthew Whitehead, director of the university’s APEX Gallery, to offer students instruction in pottery and ceramic making. These workshops gave the students basic skills needed to turn clay into pottery. Students then did materials science and engineering work to process the various clays and minerals at their disposal and design an end product. The process of creating value out of raw materials and minerals can be challenging.

One student team used clay gathered from the Tower Road area above Rapid City and made a ceramic mug with 3D scan of the head of the MET department, Michael West, Ph.D. Other teams made shot glasses with the university logo on the bottom, a set of bowls, a teacup and a replica of a vintage figurine statue of the university mascot, Grubby.Dr. West Mug

Faculty members distributed students with various skills in pottery making, geology and minerals processing across the five teams. Jon Kellar, Ph.D., professor in the MET department, says the teamworking skills students developed during the project was an important part of the pedagogy. “We were fortunate the teamwork was really good,” says Kellar. “The hands-on part of these projects kept students interested -- many spent long hours in the lab as they got involved in the creative work.”

The course was also completed with help from local industry partners. Pacer Minerals in Custer provided some of the important components for successful pottery glazes. Coeur mining company had unique minerals needed for pottery at the Wharf gold mine near Lead, SD. Dakota Pottery in Sioux Falls provided consulting and the tools needed to make ceramics and pottery.

The final products are on display in the MET department inside Mines Mineral Industries Building. Future students taking junior design will build on the success of this cohort using new tools in the department including a potter's wheel and kiln located in the university foundry.

Mines will also offer a summer camp on “Science of Pottery and Glasses” for high school students starting the first week of August. The camp, funded by the National Science Foundation, is geared toward students who have an interest in both art and science. 



About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu

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