Magazine Feature / People

Engineering student puts her academic pedal to the metal

Ellen Classen wasted no time revving her academic career into high gear at the University of Denver.

In January 2009, the first-year student set her sights on a prestigious and highly selective automotive engineering program in Germany, the cradle of high-performance car production. Despite the long odds, she was accepted into the National Science Foundation (NSF) program before the end of her first academic year. She was on her way.

“It was a little overwhelming,” she says. “We had to be there May 28 — my classes weren’t even over — but all the professors here were so excited for me and worked with me. I even took one final exam while I was in Germany.”

Classen, who dreams of a career designing high-performance automobiles (for Porsche, she hopes), was one of eight American students selected to participate in the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

“The whole idea is to get undergraduates the valuable research experiences they’ll need to get into graduate school,” Classen says.

And the 19-year-old mechanical engineering major already has her eye on graduate school and beyond.

Engineering Professor Dan Armentrout, who joined mathematics Professor Richard Ball in writing letters of recommendation for Classen, says he admired her determination and ambition when she came to him with the idea of applying for the NSF program. But he didn’t want her to expect too much at the start. Competing applicants for the program came from schools like MIT and Cornell.

“She came to me with this great idea, to go to Germany and learn about automotive design, but it’s a very difficult program and for someone who just came to college, it’s a lot to ask,” Armentrout says. “It took me by surprise. But she’s one of those students who takes the toughest you can give her and asks for more.”

Classen was assigned to a laboratory research project at the Technische Universität Darmstadt (the Technical University of Darmstadt), south of Frankfurt. There, she was immersed in a computational fluid dynamics program and oversaw 10 super-fast computers that ran models for a device that would allow for particle flow testing, using automotive soot as a particulate.

The work was demanding, and at times the formulas she worked with overwhelmed the computers, requiring modifications and adaptation in mid stream. But, she says, it was also rewarding and engrossing.

“[It’s] really right on the edge of what a computer can do today,” Classen says. “Being over in Germany and being so close to all the super cars that I’ve fallen in love with, it was just so exciting to see them and be that close to that work. I’m just even more motivated.”

Classen toured Germany with family for a week after the eight-week program ended; she returned home at the end of July. By mid-August she was already lined up for core classes in engineering and says she’s a bit disappointed she won’t be taking a mathematics course this fall.

Moving into her second year at DU, Classen says she’s amazed how her life and DU seemed to cross paths at the right time. When she began searching for a college, she only applied to DU at her mother’s urging, with her eyes on some place far away from Colorado. Ultimately, a visit to DU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science convinced her to enroll.

“It really was tough for me to decide what I wanted to do. I applied to 11 schools in nine different majors,” she says. “I was really confused when I started the process. I think math and science is really what interests me the most. Now, I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.”


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