Published: Oct. 11, 2012

Senior Christina Jones decided to major in civil engineering because she likes construction projects. Little did she know when she made that decision that she would be selected as an intern to work on one of the largest and most significant projects underway in the whole world—the expansion of the nearly 100-year-old Panama Canal.

The Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering developed the IMPACT Scholar Internship with CH2M HILL to inspire civil engineering students through a premier internship opportunity.

“It’s such a high-profile project, I can’t believe I got to go down there as a student,” says Jones, who returned in August after working for three months in Panama. “It was such an amazing experience.”

The expansion project began in 2007 and involves building a larger set of locks on each end of the canal, as well as deepening and widening the navigational channels so that larger ships can pass through. The project, known as the Third Set of Locks because it offers a third lane for ships that is larger than the current two, will dramatically increase the cargo-carrying capacity of the 48-mile international waterway.

Jones said she had just returned to Boulder after studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, when she heard about the opportunity from her department and decided to apply over spring break.

Professor and CEAE department chair Keith Molenaar says Jones was exceptionally well prepared for the internship:  “In addition to her technical skills, her communication and interpersonal skills exemplify the holistic engineers that we hope to educate at CU.”

Molenaar, who is a member of the Pan American Academy of Engineering and worked on the risk analysis for the canal expansion from 2006 to 2010, said he too found it a privilege to work on one of the most significant engineering projects in history.  “The project is complex, not only because of the engineering challenges of design and construction, but also due to the social and political implications of the project,” he says. 

Jones spent the first three weeks of her assignment working with the structural engineer and design team at the off-site office of the Autoridad del Canal de Panama (ACP), which manages the canal operations along with all of the construction contracts involved in the Third Set of Locks project.

She then transferred to the Pacific Locks Construction Site, where she helped the approximately 10-member construction management team to track the scheduling, progress and design details related to the placement of 5 million cubic meters of concrete.

“The size of the Pacific Locks site is incredible. Just the lock chambers run a mile long followed by the new 6.1 kilometer access channel, and there are 25 tower cranes on the site,” Jones says. “It was overwhelming--there is so much bustling activity.”

Jones says she really enjoyed the work and the people she met from the integrated ACP and CH2M HILL team, who inspired her with what she can do with her engineering degree. “I can reach for something and go after it,” she says.

Besides working between 40 and 50 hours a week during the internship, she enjoyed the opportunity to explore Panama. She decided to get certified in scuba diving, and went diving in both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Originally from Buena Vista, Colorado, the daughter of two chemical engineers, Jones has already met the requirements to receive an International Engineering Certificate when she graduates from CU-Boulder next year. She says she will likely go onto graduate school to earn her MS before taking her first engineering job.

She hopes to return to Panama for the official opening of the new locks, expected in mid-2015.

For more about Jones’ experience in Panama, read her blog >

A few facts about the Panama Canal

  • The French attempted to build a sea-level canal in the 1880s, but the effort was abandoned in 1890 due to poor planning, underestimation of work and eventually bankruptcy; about 22,000 workers lost their lives during this period due to accidents and disease
  • The United States bought the equipment and excavations in 1904 and completed the canal in 1914 using a lock system and an elevated reservoir; another 5,500 workers died building the canal
  • The U.S. spent $375 million to build the Panama Canal (roughly equivalent to $8.6 billion now)
  • The U.S. returned the Canal Zone territory to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999
  • The maximum size of a cargo ship in the Panama Canal today (knows as “Panamax”) is 965 feet long and 106 feet wide, with a 39.5-foot tropical freshwater draft
  • The Panama Canal Expansion Program has a price tag of $5.25 billion, with the Third Set of Locks Project at $3.2 billion, and will allow vessels with two to three times the cargo of today’s Panamax vessels
  • The “Post-Panamax” ships will be 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide, with a 49.9-foot draft