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A Professor's Point of View: Panama

September 24, 2014

(Writen by Thomas Sheahan, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering)

About Me

I’m a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and I also work in the Dean’s office as Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. I’ve been at Northeastern since the early 1990s, and while I was trained as a geotechnical engineer, lately I’ve been interested in environmental contamination in soils, the effect of pollutants on public health, remediation of contaminated soils, and now coastal infrastructure adaptation due to climate change. I’ve also been involved with student group advising since the mid-90s, including Tau Beta Pi (the engineering honor society), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) student chapter, and a short stint with Engineers without Borders (EWB) when it first started here. I want to connect students with the world around us and see how much they can contribute with their brains and practical knowledge. After helping with many service projects through ASCE, and watching the amazing things that EWB is doing, I wanted to experience an international service project firsthand. 

Panama Service Learning Trip

I spent a week in Panama in late August, 2014 with co-op faculty member Dan Saulnier (BSCE ’98) and 10 students from across the College. We had several Civils, but also Mechanical and Chemical Engineering majors, most of whom are sophomores this year. This service learning trip was hosted by an NGO, Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), which we had connections with through Engineers without Borders (EWB), which Dan is the advisor for. The goal was to do some projects organized by SHI in the village of Las Delicias, a village near Penenomé in the Coclé Province of Panama.

I'm the one on the left in the grey hat

After landing in Panama City, we were met by Greg Bowles and drove to Penenomé where we were staying in a hotel during our time there. The next day, we got our first experience in the village, being welcomed by the SHI extension worker, Mariano, and the village leaders. We were also fortunate to have a Peace Corps volunteer, Elena Dulys-Nusbaum, living in the village, who helped us understand some of the nuances of village life. We took a character-building hike to their water source, which was of particular interest to Dan since the EWB chapter and the villagers are going to consider whether to do some long-term water distribution work in the village. In the afternoon, we split into two groups to work on a water filtration system for one home, and a Damak or “jet stove” for another family. The jet stoves are designed to use less wood and reduce smoke levels in homes.

Our civil engineers hard at work
building a jet stove

During the next two days, we began work on a water storage tank for the school, which often lacks a consistent water supply since it is up on a hill and comes after several homes along the water line that use up water pressure. We built another stove and filter systems, and hiked to another potential water source. The students also became fast friends with the village children. Our gift that we brought was a new soccer ball, and the soccer players in our group quickly were in demand for a game after school let out. Talk about soccer diplomacy! We also had our “headquarters” for the week next to the one-room schoolhouse, and we were building the new water tank, so the children saw a lot of us, and bonded with the NU students in an amazing way.

Here I am planting trees on day 5

On the 5th day of the trip, we spent most of our time planting tree seedlings in an area that had been burned out in a Spring fire, and also continued work on the tank. While we were increasing our endurance working in the hot climate, we started to learn how to pace ourselves while still getting a lot done. On our last day in Las Delicias, we completed the water tank plumbing and gathered for a farewell festival that included a piñata, traditional songs and dances, and more of the great food we had enjoyed all week prepared by the women in the village. Then it was time to say goodbye, and we all agreed that we had gained new friends in Las Delicias, made some memories that we won’t soon forget, and wanted to come back again to work with the villagers. The children of the village were especially sad to see us go.

We left for Panama City the next morning, excited about seeing the Panama Canal and the new expansion project. We were met by Kathryn Clarke, an NU COE undergrad co-op working for the Canal Authority. After seeing the Miraflores Locks in the original Canal, we went to the jaw-dropping expansion project – sky cranes that were too many to count, a concrete batch plant that would dwarf most in the US, the locks extending from our viewing point into the humid haze, and endless piles of aggregate waiting to be used for the embankment separating the old canal from the new one. Our tour guide pointed to a large levee holding back a body of water, and said “oh, by the way, that’s the Pacific Ocean we’re holding back.” We were truly impressed.

We had some time to tour the old city of Panama City, which is still amazingly recovering from a 1980s invasion by the U.S.! Many bombed out structures starting to be rebuilt.

What a view for our crew,
I'm second from the right

We had our final night in Panama, and then it was time to return to Boston, with only a few days until classes started. We thanked Greg and Elena, who had traveled to Panama City with us, and again spoke of the unforgettable experiences of the week. Dan and I hope to return in the Spring to do more projects and perhaps scope out an EWB project in Las Delicias – I know that I’ll try to find a way to go on this trip (maybe armed with better Spanish) and reconnect with villagers.

See more amazing photos