Unconventional traditions central to CMU experience

Make the most of your college days by embracing these long-standing traditions

Nicole Hamilton Aug 18, 2012

At Carnegie Mellon you will receive a world-class education, work with amazing professors, and do a good bit of hard work. And while these things may seem like the most important parts of college, they don’t come close to defining the Tartan experience.

For those whose hearts are in the work, the quirky traditions at Carnegie Mellon are more definitive of Tartan culture than its academic aspects are. While the following list is far from comprehensive, these traditions are arguably the most important factors in shaping students’ identities and experiences. Welcome to the Tartan family.

Playfair

During Orientation week, there are tons of events meant to help first-years bond with fellow classmates. No event does this better than Playfair, a once-in-a-Carnegie-Mellon-lifetime experience where students get the chance to meet and interact with practically everyone in their class. With a number of games and mini-competitions, Playfair is a memory-making activity and a chance to start friendships that could last a lifetime.

The Kiltie Band

Proudly and affectionately known as the band that wears no pants, the Kiltie Band is Carnegie Mellon’s official marching band. Founded in 1908, the band performs in full Scottish regalia — kilts, knee socks, and all — and is known for its colorful, nerdy cheers and anti-cheers. Under the direction of music professor Paul Gerlach, the Kiltie Band entertains the crowd during home football games and during spring and winter concerts. At halftime during Carnegie Mellon’s Homecoming game, the band performs its famous Scatter Show.

Growing from seven members at its inception to over 130 members today, the Kiltie Band is a staple of Carnegie Mellon culture, and it is open to all who wish to join, regardless of musical experience.

Bagpipes

Both Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon were of Scottish descent, and the culture of their homeland is alive and well here. In addition to being one of very few universities in the U.S. to offer degrees — bachelor’s and master’s — in bagpiping, Carnegie Mellon is also home to Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums, a competitive bagpipe band.

The band is currently under the direction of Andrew Carlisle, one of the world’s leading pipers and the director of piping in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music. Made up of students, faculty, and alumni, Carnegie Mellon Pipes and Drums can be seen — and heard — on warm Monday nights on the Cut.
Spring Carnival

The light at the end of the dark winter tunnel, Spring Carnival is regarded as Carnegie Mellon’s oldest tradition. Taking place about a week before spring semester finals, Spring Carnival is comprised of four main parts: Midway, Booth, Mobots, and Sweepstakes/Buggy, along with a celebrity comedian performance, a large outdoor concert, and a fireworks show.

On Midway — traditionally located in the parking lot behind Morewood Gardens — you will find the necessities of any good fair, including rides, carnival food, and games. What makes Midway unique, however, are the booths: one- and two-story wooden structures built from the ground up by students in various organizations and clubs. Each year, the Spring Carnival Committee chooses a theme and booths are built to creatively reflect it, with prizes awarded to the very best. Past themes include “History With a Twist,” “When I Was Your Age,” and “As Seen on TV.” Midway is also the site of the comedy show.

The curious white lines in front of Wean Hall aren’t part of some abstract art piece; they are part of the course for yet another Carnegie Mellon tradition: Mobots. Also known as Mobile Robots, Mobots are student-built autonomous robots designed to read the white lines and navigate the course. Initiated in 1994, Mobot racing has become an annual Spring Carnival event.

The pièce de résistance of Spring Carnival, and perhaps the most sacred of all Carnegie Mellon traditions, is Buggy. In a nutshell, a buggy is a cross between a soapbox car and a luge racer. Once large and boxy, these student-built racers are now sleek and aerodynamic cylinders that have raced at every Spring Carnival since 1920 in an event known as Sweepstakes. On the day of competition, buggies are pushed and driven in a relay-style race along the backside of campus on a course over 4,000 feet long. Today’s buggies have clocked in at over 30 miles per hour. Sweepstakes brings out fierce competition among racers and non-racers alike and creates rivalries that last well after graduation.

The Fence

As legend has it, the Fence was built in 1923 to replace a bridge that used to span a ravine running along the Cut. The bridge brought together the gender-divided campus — male Carnegie Tech students and female Margaret Morrison students — and was a popular place for students to mingle. Ever since, the Fence has served as the central spot for advertising on campus and remains a common meeting place.

According to university rules, the Fence must be painted in its entirety between midnight and 6 a.m. and can be painted only with hand brushes. In addition, it must be guarded at all times by a member of the group that most recently painted the Fence in order to keep that group’s message up. It is unwritten etiquette that if another organization needs the Fence, it is turned over to that group or shared between groups.

The steel- and concrete-cored Fence on the Cut today is not the original; it’s a replacement erected after the original collapsed under its own weight in 1993. With over six inches of paint, the original fence holds the Guinness World Record for being the most painted object.

Playground

For one week every semester, the normal School of Drama curriculum grinds to a halt as students take part in "Playground: A Festival of Independent Student Work." For the past nine years, students have had the opportunity to breathe life into their original ideas while testing methods and skills acquired during the year. All of the works created and performed during Playground aren't just abandoned at the end of the week: A number of pieces are developed further, and some even go on to be produced.

The Green Room

Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama has turned out a number of famous alumni such as Ted Danson, Blair Underwood, and Judith Light. Besides each getting their start on the main stages of Purnell, they have also partaken in the School of Drama tradition of signing the walls and ceiling of the Green Room. Located behind the main stage in Kresge Theatre, the Green Room is signed by senior drama students at the end of the school year, signifying the end of one chapter and the start of another.

Primal Scream

It may be Orientation, but it's never too early to think about finals, right? Take comfort in knowing that Primal Scream is there to take the stress away. Hosted by the Student Dormitory Council, the event invites students to come to the Fence and release their frustration by screaming into the night. Taking place each semester the night before the first day of finals, Primal Scream is a night of free food and great conversation — a perfect way to calm yourself before the madness begins.