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The Thorson First-Year Honors Program is a unique and collaborative approach to learning that uses real-world problems to introduce students to the role engineers and scientists play in a fast-changing world. Working closely with some of the best teachers across the humanities, engineering, and sciences, students in the Honors community come to see how the global challenges of the future require innovative and creative thinking.


The curricular component of the Thorson First-Year Honors Program is a 2-semester interdisciplinary course sequence called IDEAS – Innovation and Discovery in Engineering, Arts, and Sciences. In IDEAS, students explore critical thinking, design, and ethical problem-solving through a multitude of lenses: they learn to think like an artist, an engineer, a designer, an activist, a poet, and a scientist.

The course sequence fulfills core curriculum requirements for all majors by replacing two required core courses (HASS 100 Nature and Human Values and EDNS 151 Design I).


Co-curricular components of the program include local field trips, community events and dinners, as well as limited scholarships for some of the program’s participants and an international trip over Winter Break for our students selected by lottery. Through all of these experiences and interactions, learning extends past the traditional boundaries of the classroom into the lasting friendships that students develop over the course of their freshman year.

We believe a world of IDEAS is also a world worth exploring, and each year we offer new and different opportunities within and beyond the course. We aspire to provide all our students with the chance to enrich their first year at Mines in unique ways. With a program of 130+ students we organize small group trips (this year 20% of our participants were selected by lottery) to participate in a trip over Winter Break. Through other field trips and community engagement opportunities, Thorsonites investigate the intersection of art, design, culture, and society here in the US and abroad.

All students that are accepted to Mines will receive an email inviting them to apply to the Thorson First-Year Honors Program. In this competitive application process, we try to identify the incoming students that are best-suited for this signature learning experience – those that possess intellectual curiosity, leadership potential, community engagement, creativity, and respect for others.

On top of that, we try to identify those students that are comfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the grand challenges of this fast-changing, multicultural, and globalized earth: there are no easy answers here. Our Thorson alumni report that the course “changes the way they think,” and provides a creative outlet that balances their engineering courseload.

The Thorson First-Year Honors Program has been designed to prepare students to succeed in upper-level University Honors and Scholars Programs, such as the McBride Honors Program, the Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program, and more.

Don Thorson (center), with students Karah Han, Julia Eiken, Jack Guidroz, and Griffin Hampton


Don Thorson, born in 1933, grew up in the oil field in Newcastle, Wyoming. At the age of 4, after his father sustained a severe injury, Don accompanied his dad to the oil field, turning the key and lifting the reverse lever on the pickup.

When Don was 8, his father bought his own oil production equipment, and the two continued to work side-by-side each summer. Over time, Don and his dad became engaged in bentonite processing. Bentonite is a type of clay used across many industries that is prized for its ability to absorb moisture. Don first began to learn about bentonite processing by watching the water pumps. In 1947, the first Thorson bentonite plant broke ground; Don even participated in its construction by shoveling sand and hauling water for the concrete mix equipment. After the plant was operational, Don was responsible for running the test drill, drying the clay, and hauling material.

Don graduated high school and enrolled at Colorado School of Mines, ultimately earning a degree in geophysics in 1955. Each summer, he’d return home to work at the plant, combining his formal education with invaluable hands-on experience. After college, Don was drafted into the Army, who sent him to work on surveying projects in Iran. Upon completion of this service, Don resumed his partnership with his father, who had started an oil company. Don was in charge of the oil company for some 35 years before selling it in 1990. To this day, Don and his brother serve in an advisory role to the family bentonite business.

Through Don’s generosity, the Thorson First-Year Honors program was launched in August 2016. On behalf of the program leadership, faculty, alumni, and students: thank you, Don. We couldn’t do this without you.


The Thorson First-Year Honors Program is a great way to begin your Mines experience! The application deadline for academic year 2020-2021 is Monday, March 2nd, 2020 at 11:59pm Mountain Standard Time.

If you submitted your application prior to the 1/15 priority deadline, expect a decision in mid-February. All other applicants will receive decisions no later than mid-April.

Questions? Drop us a line at or swing by the Honors House (1700 Illinois Street).