A scene from the glass pumpkin patch at MIT (Credit: MIT Glass Lab)
– by Jennifer Berglund
Deep in MIT’s labyrinthine innards, a small team of goggled MIT professors and students busy themselves around glowing furnaces and flesh-frying ovens. It is the epicenter of the MIT Glass Program, and from its fiery furnaces glow its bread and butter, the great glass pumpkins.
Throughout the year, a group of volunteers comprised of students, professors and local glass blowers donate their free time to produce a colorful cocktail of pumpkins. Come fall, the crop is gathered to sell in a peculiar fall market called The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch. This year is the seventh anniversary of this quirky MIT tradition. During the last weekends in September, students, faculty and the Boston community alike gathered at MIT’s Kresge Oval to pick over the harvest of the thousand or so pumpkins that were made. Each pumpkin was unique, crafted by hand in varying shapes, sizes and colors, and created to generate funding for the MIT Glass Program.
Peter Houk, Vulcan of the glass studio, is the mastermind behind the event. Serving his eleventh year as the program’s director and his sixteenth as an instructor, Houk has watched an interest in glass blowing blossom at MIT. The two classes offered, Beginning and Intermediate Glass Blowing, are the two most popular extracurricular classes at MIT. They have become so popular that admittance into them is decided according to a lottery. For the 16 available spots in the beginners class, 120 students showed to sign up, “that means only one in every 8.56 students are admitted into the class – it works out to be almost exactly the percentage of applicants accepted into MIT,” said Houk in a very stereotypical MIT professor moment.
Although incredible numbers of pumpkins are made each year, the program itself doesn’t focus on the production of the Pumpkin Patch. “I want to make it clear that the object of the program is not to make pumpkins,” Houk says, “that is strictly voluntary.” Once a student has participated in the beginner’s class, mastering the sequences of coordinated movements necessary to blow glass, or “the dance,” as Houk calls it, he or she can participate in pumpkin making, and, for this, there is no shortage of volunteers.
With the proceeds, Houk intends to one day move the program to a bigger and better lab, but it will take several more pumpkin patches to do so. For now, most of the money earned pays for necessary equipment and materials, allowing for only a small fraction to be saved for expanding the lab. Until then, the lab will remain buried in MIT’s basement – a not so secret secret that displays its bounty every fall at a most unnatural market.