Alumni, Projects Giving WPI Connection to Panama

Helping to shore up Panama's prosperity is a dynamic team of WPI graduates, who credit the university's educational philosophy with helping them to guide their country into the future.

Panama, a country of roughly 3 million that connects Central America with the northern tip of South America, has kept a low profile compared to its Central American brethren. Despite its famed canal, picturesque beaches, and abundant, exotic wildlife, it logs far fewer tourists than does its northwestern neighbor, Costa Rica. Yet Panama has come into its own in recent years. Its capital, Panama City, is the most cosmopolitan city of the region, with gleaming skyscrapers, luxury condos, and a flood of investment from American and European retirees. The Panamanian economy, thanks to a historically conservative banking system and canal revenues, is among the fastest-growing in all of Latin America. Helping to shore up Panama’s prosperity is a dynamic team of WPI graduates, who credit the university’s educational philosophy with helping them to guide their country into the future.

Photo: President Dennis Berkey visited Panama in 2007. From left to right: Irvin A. Halman '80, Eduardo Navarro '81, Carlos Fernandez '96, President Berkey, Fernando Motta '83, and Cathy Berkey.

Panama has long contributed students to WPI's diverse student body. Around 40 Panamanians have graduated since 1980, most in engineering. Members of the first wave are today leaders in fields as varied as transportation, construction, toy distribution, and even art. Irvin A. Halman '80, the first Panamanian graduate, was named vice-president of education by president Ricardo Martinelli. Five alumni, including Halman, are members of the Board of Directors of the Panama City Chamber of Commerce and collaborate in developing national policy on the country's
dominant issues.

The alumni say the WPI Plan provided them with a strong foundation in critical thinking and problem solving, and helped them bring fresh approaches to the challenges facing the country. Now, through a new WPI project center in Panama, they might help the next generation of WPI students apply their knowledge to real-world challenges and help shape a better future.

Seizing opportunity

Panama in the mid-1980s was a difficult climate in which to do business. The regime of the deposed dictator Manuel Noriega, which ended with the U.S. invasion in December 1989, was an international embarrassment and wreaked havoc on the country’s business climate. In 1988, the U.S. government, in protest of the regime, had dissolved a preferential trade agreement with Panama, frozen Panamanian assets in U.S. banks, and suspended canal payments. After the invasion, neighborhoods lie in ruin. Normalcy slowly returned, but trepidation permeated the landscape.

"Every time has its opportunities, if you look deeply enough into it," said Gaspar García de Paredes '83, the president of Panama’s National Counsel for Private Enterprise (CoNEP) and the head of an industrial supplies firm. "The WPI Plan helped us to model and plan any sort of undertaking with courage, even things that hadn’t been done before."

The WPI graduates faced a lofty challenge: to build a country anew. It would require ingenuity and applying skills in ways they could not have imagined. Yet each, in his own way, would contribute.

In 1992, Jorge García '81 was hired at the Panama City-based Copa Airlines. Copa was a tiny operation with two Boeing jets and three daily flights. Bullet holes riddled a hangar from which Noriega was thought to be attempting escape. García was hired to be in charge of operations, which at that time, meant doing just about everything: baggage handling, customer service, launching the airline’s Visa card, and, most daunting, making the airline operate on time.

"At the time, they didn’t measure their on-time rate," García said. "As you know, you can’t improve something that hasn’t been measured."

García seized the challenge, directing the cleaning and baggage crews to sign in when they began work on a flight and to sign out when they finished. He set goals and incentives, aiming at first for 20 on-time flights. Once that was achieved, the streak continued to grow, until the on-time rate was over 90 percent. (It was 50 percent when first measured.)

Improving punctuality "was the key," García said. "Customers were happy, and you reduced costs from things like hotel vouchers from missed connections."

When García was later placed in charge of maintenance — which he admits he knew little about at the time — he turned to an eminently reasonable but out-of-the-box solution: He called Boeing and asked who the best operator of Boeing aircrafts in the United States was. Boeing told García it was Southwest Airlines. So García called the head of Southwest’s maintenance department in Texas.

"He was a nice guy," García said. "I told him I wanted to learn how their maintenance operation was organized — engineers, planning people, the stockroom." 

García visited Southwest’s headquarters three times, the last time bringing members of the cleaning, maintenance, and serving crews. They filmed Southwest personnel as they refueled a plane, loaded baggage, and stocked food between flights. When the Copa team returned to Panama, they studied the film and succeeded in lowering their turnaround time from 45 minutes to 25 minutes.

García credits WPI for instilling diligence and a never-surrender attitude. "I learned I had to work hard and be consistent," he said. Given the school’s seven-week terms, "I quickly learned I had to study every day; I couldn't just cram for the final."

Under García's direction, Copa's Panama facilities became a certified FAA repair station. In his next stint at the airline, as commercial vice president from 2000 until 2007, revenue grew around 10-fold. Today, Copa is a major Latin American carrier with flights to 45 destinations in 24 countries, and a codeshare with Continental Airlines. It has helped boost Panama’s visibility within Latin America, and made the country a more viable tourist destination.


The WPI curriculum, with its emphasis on cooperative work emphasized in the Major Qualifying Project (MQP) and Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), equips students to make a difference, the Panamanian alumni say.

"In the real world, you work in teams. You tackle problems and have to cooperate and coordinate," said de Paredes. "The individual on his own, in this day and age, is at a loss."

As president of CoNEP, which encompasses around 25 business organizations, de Paredes helps develop public-private sector partnerships to address issues such as mass transportation, healthcare, education, and clean energy. Coming up with effective strategies, he said, demands the type of innovative thinking stressed at WPI.

"Under the Plan, we were taught that the text is not the Bible. You had to look at a problem from above, below, and sideways,” he said. “You learned how to take variables and apply principles. You weren’t meant to memorize formulas; you were taught to use reasoning to gain insight into problems."

Today, de Paredes says he approaches problems, no matter which field they relate to, in the same manner. Although Panama’s economy has grown rapidly, roughly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; going forward, a challenge will be to provide opportunities so that more people can partake in the country's prosperity.

"We in the private sector are trying to make profound inroads to solving problems," he said. One CoNEP program, Panama's first National Clean Production Center, established with USAID/Panama in 2005, helps auto repair shops and cattle, swine, and poultry operations adopt environmentally friendly methods and work toward environmental regulations that emphasize sustainable development while increasing profitability. As a new administration prepares to take office, de Paredes says he will be urging policymakers to take a step back to consider the roots of problems, rather than grasping for quick fixes. He cites public safety as an example.

"Gangs have proliferated in the city. Why?" he asked. "Maybe people don’t have enough opportunities. Maybe we need to provide opportunities and training. We need to consider, why would these kids risk their lives to (be involved in gangs)?

"The past four administrations have not solved these problems. They want things solved in a five-year term. Even though they've worked in that timeframe, they’ve lost (in the following election). So that’s not working out for them. People need faith, and they need to be involved in solutions. For certain, they need to be informed. If they buy into the plan, it will reveal the result hoped for.

The Plan 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the WPI Plan was still young. Born in 1970, it had its roots in a time of great upheaval and change. The WPI Plan allowed students, many of whom had completed military service and were older, unprecedented freedom in shaping their education. The grading system was less defined than it is today, consisting simply of AC, or acceptable; AD, or acceptable with distinction; and NR, or no record.

Physics professor Thomas Keil remembers the Panamanian students as mature and self-directed.

"They responded very well to the Plan," he said. "They appreciated an education system where a lot of the choices were theirs … WPI was an adventure at that point, and to be successful here, students had to be adventurous."

The alumni say their time at WPI fused their intellect and creativity, pushing them past the boundaries of a traditional curriculum.

"I wouldn't have seen myself in a regular academic program," said Florencio Icaza '82, a vice president of the Chamber of Commerce who has worked on developing Panama as a world logistics center. Icaza's son, Felipe, is a WPI student. "The dynamics at WPI helped me to do what I’m doing now.

The lack of a formal grading system helped foster cooperation among students and placed their work in a positive perspective, de Paredes said. "I perceived more camaraderie between us, since there was no pressure regarding GPAs. When I was working on my MQP, people benefited from exchanging ideas … In the real world, you don’t care if you're number one; you care about your bottom line. You want to be sustainable. Your goal in life is to have a positive impact."

The alumni recall their projects and the opportunities they afforded to delve more deeply into certain areas. For their MQP, García and de Paredes both worked on solar-powered pumps. Nicolás Corcione '91, '92 (MS), whose construction and development firm has built middle-class and higher-end housing projects, worked on a rehabilitation project for a Massachusetts bridge. Fernando Motta '83, now executive vice president and general
manager of a food and wine distributor, and Guillermo Maduro '83, now the owner of a toy distribution and design firm, worked on a computer program that is similar to what Quicken is today.

"Through the Plan, I was able to focus on what I wanted," said Motta, who also heads a Panama chapter of the Young Presidents' Organization, a worldwide network of business leaders ages under the age of 50. "I could find what motivated me the most."

Halman says the Plan was well-suited for his Panamanian peers, in structuring the curriculum in a way that equipped them with the skills they would need in addressing the diversity of problems regularly faced in Latin American countries.

"The WPI Plan worked well for a country not well-industrialized," he said. "Having an interdisciplinary background helped not only in a technological business sense, but also in working in the community. It helped us to do what was required back home, even if we didn’t realize it."

Building Panama's Future

There is still much room for ingenuity and sound critical thinking as Panama moves forward to take advantage of new opportunities on its way to become a world-class nation. While much has been done in the past few years to cultivate a sound business culture and confidence of international investors, capitalizing on the country's potential will require leaders to have a long-term vision and to take the right steps.

A potential windfall for the country’s future economy is a Panama Canal expansion project that is expected to finish in 2014. The project, which is hoped to build on the success Panama has had in overseeing the canal since it was handed over by the U.S. in 1999, will add a third set of locks to the canal, expanding the amount of traffic the canal can accommodate and increasing Panama’s canal revenues.

Generating the income hoped for and building a viable infrastructure centered on the canal will demand careful planning, said Icaza, who for two years helped organize, with the help of the Ministry of Science and Technology, a canal-focused logistics exposition.

"All the ingredients are in place for a major logistics system, but they're not integrated," he said. With a cohesive system, he added, he believes Panama might become a Singapore of the Americas.

WPI students might have a role in the canal expansion project. President Dennis Berkey and Professor Jeanine Plummer, director of the Undergraduate Environmental Engineering Program, have visited the Panama Canal Authority, and WPI now has a Project Center in Panama where students can pursue their MQPs.

Meanwhile, two top priorities for the new administration will be improving transportation and education. In the capital, gridlocked traffic has become the norm, and many residents rely on second-hand American school buses known as "diablos rojos," or red devils, that are in poor condition and are sometimes driven recklessly. García, Corcione, and Carlos Fernandez '96, '97 (MS) are among the Chamber of Commerce members who will consult with the new administration on how transportation should evolve in the coming years. To this end, they have consulted with transportation authorities in U.S. cities including Miami and Tampa.

"They advised us on how to proceed, and now our job is to have the new president follow our advice," said Fernandez, who also runs a successful construction firm in Costa del Este, a fairly new and relatively wealthy area east of downtown Panama City. One plan he is currently working on is a system that would combine a subway, trolley buses, and a monorail to efficiently serve different parts of the city.

"I don’t think we need to spend a billion dollars on a metro system when we can spend $400 million or $500 million on a hybrid system that works better," he said, referring to President Martinelli's campaign promise to build a state-of-the-art subway system.

As vice minister of education, Halman will have a hand in enacting the education reforms needed to keep Panama competitive. Leading up to his new position, Halman has long pushed for innovative education and business sector partnerships through the Private Sector Council for Education Assistance (CoSPAE), of which he has served as president and is now a member of the Board of Trustees. CoSPAE works closely with government in education reform and provides technical training programs for drop-outs as well as English courses geared toward work in places including call centers and cruise ships. The council also sponsors scholarship programs, issues independent progress reports on education, and encourages companies to contribute to their communities by "adopting" schools in poor conditions. Halman is also serving as president of Panama’s Institute on Corporate Governance whose mission is to share best practices and guidelines for responsible and sustainable business, which is also a reference model for the Central American region countries with the assistance of the IFC/World Corporate Governance Forum.

Motta's business, Felipe Motta and Sons, was recognized by CoSPAE for its sponsoring of a nearby school. "They tell us what their problems are, and we try to help," Motta said. 

WPI might also play a role in bolstering education in Panama. Icaza said he would like to see a WPI program to promote the study of math in Worcester area schools replicated in Panama.

Several alumni have also been active with civic organizations, such as the Rotary Club, of which Guillermo Maduro has become president of one of the clubs in Panama.

The Future of the WPI-Panama Relationship

Three civil and environmental engineering students from WPI have gone to Panama to work on their MQPs. Working in Panama will give students opportunities that they now lack, Plummer said, particularly in completing their MQPs.

"Panama is a good place for practical, international development projects, the types of projects they might get involved with in their careers," she said. While there are centers worldwide for IQPs — the completion of which gives many students a taste for jobs related to global development — "there aren’t many for the MQP." Now, students are able to work with consulting firms in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, or become involved with research opportunities in Nancy, France and Shanghai, China.

In addition to the canal, Plummer hopes that some students will be able to work in civil construction, given all of the development now happening in Panama. Corcione leads one of Panama City’s premier construction outfits, Grupo Corcione. Fernandez and García oversee successful construction firms as well.

"Panama has many opportunities ahead," said Halman. "Several of our alumni are collaborating in the nation-building agenda, and WPI's expertise could be of mutual benefit through MQP and IQP projects. We can also collaborate in the recruitment process."

During his visit to Panama in 2007, President Berkey was awarded keys to Panama City "as a meritorious and noteworthy recognition for his significant contributions for the enrichment and development of mathematics and the contributions made by WPI through its alumni in Panama." The award attests to the continued significance of the WPI-Panama relationship.

Just as there is no shortage of opportunities for Panama to grow, there is plenty of opportunity for the WPI-Panama relationship to flourish as well.

-Submitted by Ami Albernaz

August 30, 2010