I have developed and currently operate a study abroad program in Panama, focused largely on the Panama Canal.  The Canal is a massive infrastructure system, and its on-going expansion is one of the largest and most complex engineering projects in the world today–or ever.  We’ve had funding from the UVa International Studies Office, as well as the Jefferson Trust.  We have many friends in Panama, including students, parents, and alumni.  And our connections at the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) have grown and matured over the past few years.

The Panama Canal is a perfect sociotechnical system for study by engineers and engineering students, and my collaboration with Dr. Deborah Johnson from the STS program makes this a powerful experience.  The Canal’s history exists at the jagged interface of engineering, politics, racism, imperialism, medical science, labor migration and exploitation, cultural relativism, environmental impact, and the triumph of human spirit and ingenuity.  Study of such systems lives in perfect harmony with the SEAS brand as well as our STS curriculum.  Our undergraduate students are particularly well suited for this kind of work, as they possess excellent technical skills as well as rigorous training in STS analysis.

This video, produced by Semester at Sea staff, introduces the concept behind my Maymester/J-term course:

My Panama program has several components:

  • Undergraduate Research.  To date, we have supported eight SEAS students to perform their senior thesis research on a Canal-related topic.  Each student traveled with me to Panama to engage with ACP engineers, review primary sources at the ACP technical center, and learn first-hand about Panamanian culture.  I have supported students across the Engineering school in Aerospace, Mechanical, Civil, and Systems Engineering as well as Engineering Science.  See my CV for a list of names and thesis topics.
  • A Panama Canal Case Study.  We are in the early stages of compiling a case study about the Canal, largely constructed from the theses of the eight undergraduate students.  The goal of the case study is to be a tool for engineering education, one which balances the technical issues with the societal issues, presents a balanced consideration of each, and generally challenges students to understand the complexity embedded in this globally-important infrastructure system.
  • A Maymester and J-Term Course.  Based upon my knowledge of, and network of contacts in, Panama, I developed a Maymester course for Semester at Sea and taught the class in May 2011 and May 2012.  In each case, the class included a field trip to the Canal and active work sites for the expansion project. I hosted one of our key ACP partners (Luis Ferreira) on the MV Explorer both years, and he led the field trip to work sites on the Pacific side of the Canal.  This Maymester course has evolved into a J-Term course to be offered for the first time in 2013.  The course will take place entirely in Panama, and immerse students in the culture and societal context of Panama while learning about the Canal and its expansion.
  • Internships in Panama.  This new and exciting development is made possible by the Jefferson Trust funding.  I am working to develop further relationships with industries in Panama and promote internships for SEAS students in Panama.  I have engaged banks, construction companies, and others in this effort, and I expect that the first SEAS interns will spend their summer in Panama in 2013.

If you are unfamiliar with Panama and its geography, check out this map that shows where my J-term 2013 course took place.

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