Colorado school teaches reading, writing, and rocks

Freshmen are required to buy hard hats.

Some lab sessions take place within the inky depths of an old gold mine, where classmates detonate explosives and wrestle with chattering drills.

The official band uniform consists of blue jeans, flannel shirts, suspenders - and, yes, the ubiquitous hard hat.

If the Colorado School of Mines doesn't sound like your average institute of higher learning, it isn't. Tradition-bound and technically oriented, the School of Mines is one of the world's premier mineral-engineering schools. It is the Oxford of oil, the Harvard of hard rocks.

Today, with the hunt for the world's dwindling resources intensifying, this school in the foothills northwest of Denver is experiencing a gusher of student interest. Its graduates trot off to far corners of the globe. But they are likely also to play a big hand in shaping the future of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West, as the rest of the nation plugs into this resource-rich region.

Applications at the ''Mines,'' as it is affectionately called here, have jumped 40 percent in the past two years. Since 1973 enrollment has gone from 1, 700 to more than 2,900. Last year there were four applicants for every freshman opening.

All this comes despite hefty tuition hikes. The tab for Colorado residents has more than doubled in two years. The school posts the fourth-highest tuition in the country for in-state students ($1,748) and the third-highest for out-of-staters ($5,244), trailing only Stanford and Columbia Universities.

One reason for the school's popularity, besides the dearth of engineers in the world, is its sterling reputation. Mines is Colorado's smallest, but probably its best-known, school. At a time when many of the state's colleges attract students for their proximity to the ski slopes, Mines lures them for hard-nosed technical training.

The world's ''petro-sheikhs'' and mining kings recognize that the school's graduates know their way around an oil rig or an open-pit mine. Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Ahmad Zaki Yamani once summed up his choice of US universities: MIT for engineering; Harvard for law, business, or medicine; and the Colorado School of Mines for mining or geology.

Founded during the heady gold- and silver-rush days of the 1870s, the Colorado School of Mines has built its reputation on an almost Calvinistic tradition of all work and little play. For the first year and a half, all students take the same classes. Electives are more the exception than the rule.

''The school of mines is a 19th-century anachronism and at the same time at the cutting edge of the future,'' says Martin D. Robbins, director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute, an arm of the school. ''It is a transmitter of 19th-century values: hard work, practicality, loyalty, integrity.''

The boot camp mentality on campus does take its toll. While the school's dropout rate isn't alarming, some students have drinking problems, and the college recently hired a psychiatrist to help students struggling with the workload.

Yet the school thrives. ''We expose our students to stress deliberately to toughen them for the real world,'' says Guy T. McBride Jr., school president. ''We produce a graduate that really doesn't know there is anything he can't do.''

Almost from the first day they step foot on the tree-studded campus, students know they're in for an unusual four years. As part of a yearly ritual, freshmen hike up nearby Mt. Zion and place a white-washed rock on a huge ''M'' etched in the mountainside - the school's symbol.

Like other engineering schools, Mines stresses hands-on training. Students learn how to chip out ore in an old gold and silver mine. Classes often probe the pros and cons of community projects, such as the siting of a gravel mine.

Yet the school has come under some fire for putting out plenty of technicians but not enough good managers. Some have chided the school for being short on environmental education. Moreover, many companies today want well-rounded managers. They want generalists who are as well-versed on Chaucer and sentence structure as the geology of a salt dome. In response, the school has beefed up its humanities department and is trying out an experimental program for freshmen that includes special classes in science and history, among other things.

Whatever its shortcomings, however, the school has no problems placing graduates. Last year the average starting salary for graduates with bachelor's degrees was $25,000.

Scott Burkholder, a senior in geophysics, says a $31,000-a-year job offer has been dangled in front of him. ''And I have a low grade-point average,'' he adds with a sheepish grin. Fellow-senior Joe Oravetz has been approached by at least 10 companies so far, with one offering him $35,000 a year.

''The M on the mountain,'' quips a student, referring to the school's emblem, ''doesn't stand for Mines, it stands for money.'' And not all those scrambling after the big-paying jobs these days are men. Once a bastion of masculinity, with only two women students on campus two decades ago, the school now has 580 women, 18 percent of the student body.

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