Panama Global Center illustration

Solutions With a Social Dimension in Panama

It’s said time and again that there’s no such thing as typical WPI students. Their interests, passions, and talents run the gamut from technical and athletic to artistic and scientific. One thing they all seem to have in common? Their desire to help.

They want to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and combine it with the firsthand knowledge and experiences of others with the overall goal of creating lasting solutions to problems around the world.

However, director of the Panama Project Center Aaron Sakulich, associate professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering, has seen firsthand that sometimes the STEM-heavy solutions students bring from Worcester to project centers around the world just don’t add up.

“The answer is usually not just as simple as, ‘Let’s do some math,’” says Sakulich. “Solutions to problems are rarely purely technical in nature; there has to be a social dimension and impact to them as well.”

Partially because of the canal, so many different cultures have transitioned through Panama. It’s a really interesting place—unlike the rest of Latin America, it has its own unique vibe that I hope the students find, as well.

Aaron Sakulich

That, more than anything else, is what Sakulich hopes students gain out of their time at the Panama Project Center.

The first iteration of this project center came in 2009, when an alumnus on the Board of Directors of the Panama Canal Authority expressed interest in hosting students for the hands-on project experiences for which WPI is well known. Initial projects were led by Tahar El-Korchi and Jeanine Dudle, professor and associate professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering, respectively, and focused on improving the canal’s maintenance and operation.

In 2014 the project center shifted. After applying for and winning a National Science Foundation grant that gave students the chance to complete MQPs spanning six months, Sakulich worked with El-Korchi to expand the project center to include IQPs, a change that went into effect the following year. Sakulich took over as director shortly thereafter.

Today, the focus of projects ranges from sustainability and wildlife management to social and wealth inequality; sponsors include Cope Airlines, Footprint Possibilities, and El Caño Archaeological Park. Students spend their seven weeks living in the appropriately named City of Knowledge, a former military base turned academic and entrepreneurial ecosystem. In addition to pursuing social and psychological solutions to problems, students also have the opportunity to explore a country rich in nature, art, and museums.

“Partially because of the canal, so many different cultures have transitioned through Panama,” Sakulich explains. “It’s a really interesting place—unlike the rest of Latin America, it has its own unique vibe that I hope the students find, as well.”

That opportunity to explore a new place is exactly what appealed to Bridget Gillis ’24. “I wanted an adventurous and memorable experience,” she says, “so I tried to apply to project centers located in places where I wouldn’t necessarily have a reason for visiting after college.”

Gillis and her teammates worked with IDAAN, Panama’s national water authority, to analyze its systems in the greater metropolitan area, and use maps, models, and simulations to help them optimize distribution times and schedules for citizens who are experiencing severe water shortages.

“It’s not necessarily because of droughts; it rains in Panama every day,” added Gillis’s teammate Steve DeFreitas ’23 while sharing some of his experience during a virtual panel with members of the WPI Voyagers, a WPI alumni group. “It’s because there isn’t enough water to actually go around in their system.”

Every day, Gillis and DeFreitas went out into the field with IDAAN employees to inspect current infrastructures, take measurements of flow rates, determine where the system could be improved, and make recommendations.

“Having an insider view of operations in an environmental engineering position was very insightful,” says Gillis, who was pleasantly surprised to realize that the team’s project was especially relevant to her civil engineering major. “At a recent networking event, I had a great experience talking with company representatives about our project.”

While their days were busy with project work, the students still found time to explore local museums, enjoy scenic hikes, and, of course, take time to slow down with some animals who are experts on the topic.

“Visiting the sloths at the sloth sanctuary,” Gillis says when asked about one of her favorite memories from her time in Panama. “Seeing them and the other rescued animals up close was a lot of fun.”

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