A century after the opening of the Panama Canal, students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are playing a key role in the canal's refurbishment and expansion through a three-year, $248,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The award, for a project titled "Environmental Impact of the Panama Canal Expansion Project," is through the NSF's International Research Experience for Students program. It will provide students traditionally underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields with 15-week internships with the Panama Canal Authority.
Beginning in July 2015, the first cohort of WPI students—five women—will work on projects associated with the extensive $5.25 billion Canal Expansion Project, which will double the canal's cargo capacity. Students will also participate in pre- and post-program professional development activities at WPI, and will be supported by a historically strong, alumni-based relationship between WPI's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Panama Canal Authority. A total of 15 students will work on the projects over the three-year span.
Aaron Sakulich, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at WPI, who received the award with Tahar El-Korchi, head of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the WPI Panama Project Center, noted that there is no other structure in the world like the Panama Canal.
"Without the canal, modern commerce and transportation and nearly every aspect of modern life would be completely different," he said. "This grant supports the goals of the WPI Plan, providing a project-based learning experience for students that is relevant to their studies and one that impacts the broader world around them."
The Panama experience—in which students work as interns for the Panama Canal Authority—blends interdisciplinary research and design, professional skills, and intercultural communication.
On Nov. 20, to further support the relationship between Panama and the university, WPI President Laurie Leshin, Sakulich, El-Korchi, and Jeanine Plummer, director of WPI's Environmental Engineering Program, will tour the canal site, specifically the 3rd Lock Extension. The tour will be co-hosted by Joe Adams '75, vice president of engineering operations at MWH Global Inc., which manages one of the engineering contracts for the Panama Canal Authority, and Nicolas Corcione '91, president of Grupo Corcione and a member of the board of the Panama Canal.
"This new NSF grant will provide opportunities with the Panama Canal Authority and other partners in academia and industry to collaborate on research and education that will help Panamanian society, industry, and higher educational institutions," said El-Korchi. He added that the project will also provide WPI students with unique opportunities such as working on the largest canal expansion projects in history, addressing some of the pressing construction and water management challenges for the canal, and allowing them to focus on such issues as public transportation, the environment, and sustainable development.
President Leshin noted the importance of women working on the canal project because it will help to shape their future careers.
"I am particularly elated that our first beneficiaries of this grant are accomplished young women," said Leshin. "Given what we know about the importance of project-based experiences to the retention of women in STEM fields, we anticipate that this opportunity will be a critical component of their WPI education."
A 2013 study of WPI alumni from the classes of 1974 to 2011 found that women graduates are more likely to attribute personal and professional benefits to their global project experiences. The study's respondents, many of whom participated in WPI's Global Projects Program as students, reported high levels of impact in professional abilities, interpersonal and communication skills, professional advancement, and world views. Notably, female alumni reported more positive impacts of project work than males in 36 of 39 areas, with notable differences in interpersonal and communication skills, world views, and personal impacts.
Leshin also noted the project aligns with WPI's goal of expanded global reach. "The international partnership represented by our Panama Project Center and reinforced by this NSF grant exemplifies WPI's position as a leading global polytechnic focused on taking theory to practice to impact," she said. "In working on this engineering marvel and crucible of international trade, our students are making a tangible impact on the world."
In 2007, then-WPI President Dennis Berkey visited Panama, and 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."