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Students go back in time for international mining competition at Missouri S&T

Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Rachel Bauer (right), a Ph.D. candidate at Missouri S&T, swings her hammer to pound in a metal spike during the hand steel event during the Intercollegiate Mining Games held in Rolla over the weekend.

ROLLA — Mining engineering is a field driven by the latest technology, but over the weekend, college students from around the world came to Missouri University of Science and Technology to compete in events that mimic mining practices from a century ago.

The seven events in the annual Intercollegiate Mining Competition include hand steel, in which team members drive a spike into a concrete block using nothing but a small sledgehammer and water to clean out the hole. The team that can drive the spike in deepest wins.

“It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of energy out of us,” said Ryan Sibley, a Missouri S&T student and the lead coordinator of the student-run event. “Most of us are face down after a lot of the events from all the energy we expended. But getting the chance to see and mingle with all our fellow mining students from around the world is an absolutely amazing opportunity.”

This year’s games featured teams from five states, England and Australia. The location moves each year, and this was the first time it’s been in Rolla since 2014. The previous two years were canceled over COVID concerns.

The games include divisions for men, women, coed and alumni teams.

Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
The team from Montana Technological University completes in the hand mucking event, shoveling mud and rocks into a mine car.

Another event is hand mucking. Teams of five push a huge mine cart down a track, then use shovels to fill it with dirt, gravel and debris known as “muck” and push the full cart back down the track.

The competitions are physically draining, and it's common to see competitors collapse in the mud in exhaustion after time is called.

But the back-breaking labor is a welcome change for students who spend most of their time indoors.

“It’s good to have an outlet,” said Missouri S&T graduate student Rachel Bauer. “We are all Ph.D. students and we spend a lot of time researching, writing, and we need an outlet and fun things to do. We shouldn’t research the whole time. You need balance.”

And the events that simulate mining practices from a century ago are still relevant to these students.

Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Neal Miller, a sophomore in mining engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, collapses in the mud after his team completes an event at the Intercollegiate Mining Games.

“This is one of the programs where you’re able to actually go out into a mine and actually try these things that people had been doing for centuries in mines,” said Emily Johnson, an S&T Ph.D. candidate. “So it’s pretty nice to be able to see how everything has evolved from what we do in classes to what they used to do back in the day, and meet other people who enjoy it as well.”

The Intercollegiate Mining Games were created in response to the 1972 disaster at the Sunshine Mine in Idaho, where 91 miners lost their lives. Even though that happened long before any of these students were born, they are aware of the legacy.

“The main reason these events are around is a remembrance of all those miners that perished during that disaster. That’s personally why I do it,” said Neal Miller, a sophomore in mining engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. “It’s also a lot of fun. You build a lot of team-building skills and camaraderie.”

Mining students seem to revel in the fellowship of their chosen field and the perception that they are somewhat considered outsiders in the world of science and technology.

“For me, it’s very niche and unique. It’s very essential but people just don’t know about it. It’s just a very interesting topic and I was always interested in doing engineering but mining just sounded a lot cooler,” said Molly Gordon, team captain for the Camborne School of Mines in Penryn, England. “So that’s what I’ve gone for, and I’m happy I’ve done it.”

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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