Last month, students, faculty, administration, and alumni toured the Panama Canal as the university continues its involvement in the canal’s massive expansion project. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP-Autoridad del Canal de Panama) is leading a $5 billion project to double the 100-year-old canal’s capacity with the addition of a third lock. WPI students say the opportunity to work in Panama offers a one-of-a-kind experience.
According to Tahar El-Korchi, civil engineering professor and department head, the trip was an exciting opportunity to see the work on one of the most unique civil engineering projects in the world. “Everyone can appreciate the Panama Canal, but civil engineers appreciate it even more,” he says.
With a WPI project center in Panama and an active alumni group, WPI has a long tradition of project work and local collaboration. The project, which will change the way goods and materials are transported around the world, brings WPI’s work to a new level. Having made several trips to Panama, El-Korchi says this was different. “This time was much bigger than anything we have done in the past,” he says, noting that several collaborations with Panama-based industries got off the ground as well. “This was a very productive trip,” he says. “All kinds of different people came together for a great cause.”
A group of about 30 toured the canal and listened to talks by WPI president Laurie Leshin; Joe Adams, ’75, vice president of engineering operations at MWH Global, Inc.; and Nicholas Corcione, ’90, president of Grupo Corcione and a member of the board of the Panama Canal Authority. The alumni spoke about the technical issues and challenges of the canal expansion, while five students currently spending B-Term at the Panama Project Center gave poster presentations about their work.
Sarah Antolick is spending B-Term in Panama and gaining a greater understanding of the construction process and a new interest in construction management. “I’ve truly had a valuable and unforgettable experience,” she says. “My investigation of the construction process has given me the opportunity to spend time in the field to observe the stages of construction as they happen.” Nicolette Yee, who is also finishing up B-Term in Panama, agrees. Although she had previous AutoCAD experience, working in Panama gave her a bigger picture. “It was very interesting to see the collaboration of numerous system software products to produce a single deliverable,” she says.
A recent $248,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students program is paving the way for five senior women to travel to Panama next summer and fall for an extended internship and A-term working with the Panama Canal Authority. The grant was awarded to El-Korchi and Aaron Sakulich, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Brigitte Perera, a junior civil engineering major, is one of the students heading for Panama next summer. She is at once excited and a bit awed by the idea of working on a project that is so historic, so expensive, and so large in scope. “This is such a wonderful opportunity,” she says. “It’s incredible to be at WPI and be able to work on this project as an undergrad. That is unique. I am so glad WPI set up such a great relationship with the Panama Canal Authority.”
El-Korchi, who especially likes the global experience project center work offers WPI students, forsees eventually expanding the project center work to include IQP as well as MQP work.
El-Korchi says it’s humbling to work on a project that is simultaneously so historic and so enormous in scope. “This is a game changer in how goods are going to be transported,” he says.
– BY JULIA QUINN-SZCESUIL