Despite the fact that over 80% of WPI students are in the STEM fields, the IQP focuses on using social science techniques to understand the impact of science and technology on concerned stakeholders – Technology is only a minor focus of the project. At the Panama City Project Center, interdisciplinary student teams partner with non-academic project sponsors, who identify a topic and provide access to necessary resources, while faculty members provide guidance on how to identify relevant stakeholders, gather data regarding the risks and benefits that a particular solution may pose to those stakeholders, and make decisions based on that data. The implementation of this social-science based requirement had its roots in the death of post-war utopianism. Despite incredible scientific and technological breakthroughs, most of the world population was seeing little improvement in their lives, due primarily to the fact that engineers and policymakers were investing little time in understanding the needs of stakeholders. Through the IQP, WPI aims to enable students to recognize that technology does not exist in a vacuum; only by understanding the human context in which technology is being implemented can specific goals be achieved.

The Panama City Project Center is one of the few that offers both IQP and MQP opportunities, the latter of which are carried out in partnership with the Panama Canal Authority primarily for civil  and environmental engineering students. Project-based learning experiences, such as those embodied by the IQP and MQP, have been shown to improve student outcomes in various professional skills, such as communication; to prepare students for self-directed research projects in industry or academia; to demonstrate to students the value of interdisciplinary inquiry; to encourage students in seeking graduate degrees; and to provide students with a better understanding of core concepts.

Panama is a unique country in which to carry out IQP or MQP work. The relative autonomy of the indigenous communities is in contrast to nearly 100 years of American military occupation; the extreme wealth of Panama City is reflected by the grinding poverty of Colón; the rainforests, beaches, and biodiversity of the rural areas attract tourists and researchers alike from every corner of the globe while Panama City offers all of the amenities of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan city; all against the backdrop of the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, always in operation, shaping the flow of goods through the world economy.