Alumni in energy: Kevin Shenk (E'15) on how Duke's energy engineering minor prepared him for Tesla

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Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 6:27 pm

Tesla’s mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” The company is tackling that goal on a number of fronts—now with the help of Duke alum Kevin Shenk (E ‘15).

Kevin is a self-described “engineering junkie” who also cares deeply about the environment, having grown up with parents who were ranchers in Yosemite National Park. After graduating from Duke with a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an energy engineering minor, he headed to Palo Alto for a Tesla internship.

Soon the company hired him as a full-time mechanical design engineer.

Lately, Kevin’s been working on vehicle interiors. “The design studio develops a surface or concept, then I manage the transition of that into an actual production part and see the whole design process through to production,” he explains.

Kevin ensures designs are manufacturable and interface properly with other components. “The interior is the last part to go in a car so it has to absorb the tolerance of all the other parts,” he notes. He manages suppliers and spends time at the factory, prototyping and fixing quality issues. “With plastic parts, the injection molds are expensive and have long lead times. The challenge is to design—from the beginning—a part that’s going to work well by the time it hits assembly.”

Kevin knows his job will evolve as the company’s rapid growth continues. At Tesla, he points out, “you have to be willing to roll with it!” The company recently unveiled new solar roof tiles. They’re working on power walls and power packs providing utility-scale battery storage.

“The energy engineering minor has been super-helpful and relevant for understanding what Tesla is up to—and a lot of other things going on in Silicon Valley right now. I’m having some of the same conversations on the job as I had in my classes. Because of that, I’m more familiar with why various issues are significant, with their potential to change things, than I otherwise would be. Every day, I use the knowledge I gained at Duke about how technical ideas integrate into the energy infrastructure.”

“To give just one example,” Kevin says, “there was a class I took at Duke on building scale heating and cooling calculations. I did a lot of energy storage problems on the residential scale. Now, when I hear an idea relating to energy storage, I feel more ready to approach it. I can think, ‘that makes sense, that’s worth exploring’… or ‘hey, there’s no way that would be possible.’”

The minor helped Kevin focus his attention—and navigate the job market. “As a student, having that direction you want to go in, something you’re excited about, is really helpful. Otherwise, the job market can be super-intimidating. Also, because the grid will inevitably modernize, the world will need engineers with a sound technical knowledge of energy infrastructure. There’s no doubt about it, the energy field is growing,” says Kevin. "Duke prepared me to grow along with it."  

The Energy Initiative provides administrative support for the energy engineering minor, which is offered by the Pratt School of Engineering. Interested in learning more about the minor? Contact Stacy Peterson (Senior Education Program Coordinator, Energy Initiative) or Dr. Marc Deshusses (Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering). 

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