The Thorson First-Year Honors Experience is a unique and collaborative approach to learning that uses real-world problems to introduce students to the roles 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.

Expand the sections below to learn more about the program, and check out clips from our Winter Webinar for more in-depth discussion about the Thorson experience, the application, and the IDEAS class, including some input from past students!


The curricular component of the Thorson First-Year Honors Experience 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 socials, and opportunities for international travel or other honors enrichment experiences to investigate the intersection of art, design, culture, and society. Thorsonites also have the option to live in the exclusive Honors Explore Floor Theme Learning Community (learn more here!). 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 first year at Mines.


All students that are accepted to Mines will receive an email inviting them to apply to the Thorson First-Year Honors Experience. 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 Experience 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. Thorson teaching assistants are commonly involved in other UHSP offerings and can offer first-hand experience and advice about applying. It’s never too early to get involved in these programs, and many participants get started in their first year at Mines. For more information about the other UHSP programs and opportunities, visit


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 Experience 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.


Application Deadlines

The application for the 2021-22 cohort of the Thorson First-Year Honors Experience is closed.

The application for 2022-23 will open in mid-Fall. Keep an eye on your email for the announcement: all students who are accepted to Mines will automatically be invited to apply to Thorson via email approximately one week after their acceptance.

Questions? Check out our FAQs page or drop us a line at