When engineering student Katie Drinkwater signed up for the Machine Shop Tools Mastery Unit for her Engineering 101 class, she was completely unsure about what to expect. As a freshman with no prior experience, she felt intimidated by the prospect of stepping foot into a place with such powerful and potentially dangerous machinery. Now a senior in Pratt and a member of Duke Motorsports, Drinkwater has since become much more comfortable spending time around lathes, bandsaws and other power equipment. Along with many other members of the Duke community, she attributes much of her positive experience to the guidance and support of Duke Machine Shop Manager, Steve Earp.
“When I went in to make my first part, I was very nervous and intimidated,” Drinkwater says. “I thought that I would be expected to know how to use the machines, but this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Steve helped my partner and me with every step but didn’t infringe on our ownership of the project. I always feel free to ask questions and check in with Steve, but I am still expected to do my own work.”
Drinkwater isn’t alone. “Steve is definitely a friendly face you can rely on in the Pratt student shop. His vast skills and experience are one thing, but being able to teach people new to the shop in such an engaging way sets him apart. Steve has helped me make custom tools, solve problems that seemed impossible, and has helped me learn something new every time I walk into the shop,” says John Smalley, ME ‘23 and president of Duke Aero Society.
Managing the Student Shop for nearly 15 years, Earp is a vital and beloved mentor to all students that frequent the shop. Not only responsible for the set-up, organization, and operation of the shop, Earp also ensures that thorough safety practices are properly established and upheld. Part of this dedication to safety involved spearheading a brand new initiative: The Student Shop Managers Consortium.
In 2013, following a tragic accident at Yale University that involved the death of a student using the student machine shop, Earp became determined to take action to ensure no such incidents ever occur again. “I started investigating, and trying to find other people that do my job at other universities,” he explained. After sending out an email to dozens of other engineering schools, Earp was left with no responses. However, he refused to let this deter him. “I had to drill down over the next two years and find that one guy or gal that operates and manages that shop,” he recalls. One by one, Earp built a network across the country, eventually organizing and hosting the first conference here at Duke University in 2015 with about 65 student shop managers. Earp recalls the positive feedback from all the attendees, revealing that this was the first time these individuals with the same job had been able to communicate with those in similar positions: “nobody ever knew that there was somebody like them somewhere else.” Since then, the conference has occurred on an annual basis, hosted by different universities from Yale to Washington University in St. Louis, and even virtually during the pandemic. Most importantly, this network has allowed for more conversation and accountability in making student safety a priority. Demonstrating his passion for student shops and commitment to student safety, Earp was recently named the President of this organization.
The emphasis on safety is something Drinkwater has experienced since the first time she stepped in the shop to complete her Tools Mastery assignment. “A machine shop can be a very dangerous environment — something Steve knows from personal experience — so he and Greg take safety training very seriously,” she explains. “They want every student to respect the environment without being afraid of it.” After completing the very thorough online and in-person components of the safety training, Drinkwater felt proud to pick up her shop badge. In a sentiment echoed by all of the engineering community, Drinkwater concludes, “I feel very lucky to have Steve as our shop manager. His wealth of experience, genuine interest in students’ learning, and good-humored disposition are extremely valuable additions to the Pratt community.”