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Leaves a Legacy of Excellence in Hands-On Learning and Transportation Research  

Karen Den Braven, the UI 2014 SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge team, and 13 years of awards.

After 27 years with the University of Idaho, Karen Den Braven, professor of mechanical engineering, director of the National Institute of Advanced Transportation Technology (NIATT), and founding faculty advisor to the UI Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Clean Snowmobile Challenge team, is retiring.  Professor and Director Emerita Den Braven is moving to South Carolina to be closer to family. 

While she is leaving the challenge of developing a cleaner, quieter, more efficient snowmobile engine, Den Braven will not be putting up the “gone snowmobiling” sign quite yet.  Den Braven is looking forward to tackling the new challenge of Director of Engineering Programs for the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics (GSSM).  In her new role as GSSM Director of Engineering Programs, Den Braven will work with South Carolina’s young engineers (accelerated 10-12 grade students), academic partners at Clemson and University of South Carolina, the state of government of South Carolina, and industry leaders in the state such as Boeing, BMW, and GE among others, with the goal of positively impacting South Carolina's economic development.

“Karen Den Braven is an exemplary faculty member.  First and foremost, she is passionate about students.  Every year she assembles a group of students for the Clean Snowmobile Challenge team, some new and some returning, and she is able to inspire them to succeed.  All you have to do is walk into the snowmobile laboratory and see the shelves of awards to know what a great job she has done,” says Larry Stauffer, College of Engineering dean. 

Indeed, at last count, Den Braven and the Clean Snowmobile Challenge team have won over 70 awards since founding the team in 2000.  The Clean Snowmobile Challenge team participates in the annual SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge hosted by Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center. Each year Den Braven works with a group of 15-20 students to reengineer a stock snowmobile to reduce emissions, noise and increase fuel efficiency.

Asked about how the snowmobile team got started Den Braven, laughs, something she does with ease and says, “In 2000 three students and I loaded up my little car and travelled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the inaugural clean snowmobile competition (relocated to Michigan in 2003).  I had heard about the challenge and how it evolved from the controversy over allowing sports vehicles on public lands, and thought, as an expert in small engine design, there could be a great real-world opportunity for academic growth, a long-term platform for research, and also an opportunity to have a positive impact.” 

During that first competition Den Braven’s students did not compete, instead they observed, took lots of notes and came back to Moscow to get to work.  2001 was the first year the UI team competed and, again, after competition they learned a great deal and returned to Moscow to fine-tune their engine improvements.

Dr Braven Belt BuckleIn 2002, Den Braven’s team not only swept the competition winning “First Place,” “Best Design,” “Best Performance,” and “Best Fuel Economy,” but they also won the coveted “King of the Hill” snowmobile hill climb award. The silver and copper belt buckle trophy shines in Den Braven’s office to this day. “Eventually this [belt buckle] will be put in a UI trophy case, but I’m going to hold onto it for a while, I’m still savoring the victory,” says Den Braven.

Currently, the 2014 Clean Snowmobile Challenge team is preparing to leave for Michigan.  This year’s competition takes place March 3-8.  
2002 King of the Hill Championship Belt Buckle 
Unfortunately, the competition coincides with Den Braven’s departure for South Carolina.  This will be the first time in fourteen years that Den Braven will miss the snowmobile competition but she knows the UI team will be competitive and represent the university well and likely add to their trove of awards.

Mechanical engineering professor Dan Cordon, who was the snowmobile laboratory manager before earning his doctorate at UI and has been involved with the Clean Snowmobile Challenge team since the beginning, points out that Den Braven leaves some pretty big boots to fill, “I’ve seen Karen manage academics and the snowmobile extracurricular activity of students for 14 years and she has created one of the most cohesive groups on the campus, one that includes freshmen and graduate students with very little turnover.  She understands the balance between teaching students and allowing them to fail in order for them to succeed.  The team’s success both in Michigan and after graduation where many students go on to work in the automotive and power sports industries is indicative of Karen’s success.”  Cordon will be taking the reins as primary faculty advisor for the team during this year’s competition and after Den Braven’s departure.

Den Braven’s work with engine efficiency, with over fifty publications, and her accomplishments with the Clean Snowmobile Challenge team earned her directorship of the NIATT’s Center for Clean Vehicle Technology in 2005 and in 2008 she was named Director of NIATT.

Den Braven’s impact on UI has been substantial.  Not only has she been a mentor and advisor to hundreds of students during her career, she has been instrumental in securing over $15 million dollars in grant awards since taking the helm of NIATT.  Den Braven has managed to significantly grow UI’s regional and national transportation research footprint. 

As part of the regional PacTrans University Transportation Center (UTC) that includes collaborators from Oregon State University, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, University of Washington, and Washington State University, Den Braven has led UI’s research on educating teen drivers about distracted driving, the use and development of biofuels in the Northwest, and improving rural roads and designing city road systems that better incorporate vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and other forms of transportation. 

“One of Karen’s invaluable qualities is that she is a great collaborator.  She has worked with NIATT team members, and researchers from across the nation, to bring the U.S. Department of Transportation’s highly competitive UTC program to the UI.  In addition, she continues to provide excellent leadership, support to staff, and mentoring to students in a sometimes hectic and challenging environment, another example of Karen’s positive effect,” notes Former Director of NIATT, Michael Kyte.

Den Braven’s work has brought attention to UI’s distinguished transportation research and secured the leadership role of the Tier 1 UTC known as TranLIVE (Transportation for Livability by Integrating Vehicles and the Environment).  TranLIVE is a national collaboration led by UI and includes researchers from Old Dominion University, Syracuse University, Texas Southern University, and Virginia Tech University, and is focused on developing technologies to reduce the environmental impact of the transportation system.

NIATT and TranLIVE colleague, civil engineering professor Ahmed Abdel-Rahim says that Karen will be sorely missed, “it has been a great pleasure working with Karen. I have definitely learned quite a bit from her wisdom, her dedication, and her guidance. As with all who have worked with her, I really appreciate her insight, her wit when things become a bit too serious, and more importantly her friendship.”

Professor Abdel-Rahim’s sentiments are echoed by Den Braven’s own words.  When asked what she most cherishes from her 27 years at UI (beyond the 2002 world champion silver belt buckle award) she says without hesitation, “the people, it has always been about the people. My role has been to help students, to help faculty, to make other people’s lives here easier. That is why I’ve stayed.”

“It is tough to see Karen leave but given her success at the UI as professor, mentor, researcher and director.  I am sure she will have equally as great an impact in South Carolina and we wish her all the best in her future endeavors, “says Dean Stauffer.