The Big Ditch: The Panama Canal and its Local and Global Impact

Discipline: Science, Technology & Society (Engineering)
Instructor: Berger
Credits: 3

Field Class: Panama Download Syllabus

The Panama Canal Expansion project represents a complex sociotechnical system–a project at the intersection of engineering, society, public policy, ethics, environmental issues, and social justice. This $5B project promises to transform global trade and the Panamanian economy and water resource management. The Expansion Project’s funding, labor sourcing, supply chain, and economic impact are global; but its impacts on the environment, indigenous people, the Panamanian economy, water resource management, tourism, and Panama’s political and economic influence are local. This course will focus on teaching students to be sociotechnical analysts, using the Panama Canal Expansion project as a case study. Sociotechnical analysts are capable of understanding complex networks of people, policies, systems and structures, focusing especially on the interface between people and the natural/engineered world. Engineering innovation, huge-scale project management, and massive infrastructure construction and management will be considered in the context of Panama–a modern, business-oriented culture blessed with abundant natural resources, yet surrounded by (and in many ways part of) the emerging world. The course will pose and seek to answer a series of critical questions about the Panama Canal, its expansion, and the cost-benefit analysis of its operation. Students will focus specifically on the Equator Principles (EPs), a comprehensive set of accountability standards ranging from the social and environmental impact and assessment, to project management, to grievance mechanisms, to worksite health and safety. Questions include: How does the Panama Canal and its operation benefit the impoverished population of Panama? How does it impact Panama’s availability of water for consumption, sanitation, and power generation? How has its history (built by imported labor, managed by the American military, now governed entirely by Panama) impacted our current understanding of the Canal and its relationship to Panama, its people, and their culture?

Special Requirements:

Additional Resources: 1. Field Notebook per syllabus. 2. Digital camera per syllabus.

Field Class

Country: Panama

Students will spend the day learning about the history, construction, operation and on-going expansion of the Panama Canal, in preparation for a transit of the Canal. We will begin with a coach ride to Casco Viejo, the oldest part of Panama City, to the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama. This museum, devoted to Panama as a transit and commerce route, emphasizes the period from Spanish occupation of Panama (starting in 1500) through the failed French effort to build a sea-level canal. After lunch in Casco Viejo, we will travel to the Miraflores visitors center for your first glimpse of the Canal in action. The visitors center covers details of the American construction effort, as well as special exhibits about the on-going expansion project. You will see the Miraflores locks in action from the observation deck, where you can take pictures and video. Then we will travel to an observation area that overlooks an active work site for the Expansion Project. Guided by an engineer from the Panama Canal Authority, we will learn--from this expert source--about the Expansion Project, its impact, the budget and schedule, and all the details that we will also be discussing in class. After this Field Lab, we will transit the Canal on the MV Explorer, and talk extensively about your experiences and observations.