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Panama Canal engineer video conferences with White Oak Elementary students

White Oak Elementary students communicated by video conference on Thursday morning with Rajan C. Patel, a civil engineer working at the Panama Canal. A parent and teachers worked to setup the meeting since October, and among the things they learned was the expansion of the Canal began in 2007. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

White Oak Elementary students communicated by video conference on Thursday morning with Rajan C. Patel, a civil engineer working at the Panama Canal. A parent and teachers worked to setup the meeting since October, and among the things they learned was the expansion of the Canal began in 2007. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

SUGAR HILL — The Panama Canal is not just a shortcut for large ships traveling near South America, it’s also home to a large expansion project.

That was one thing White Oak Elementary fifth-graders have learned this school year, and on Thursday they became the first students in the world to video conference with a engineer working on the expansion project, their teacher Jennifer Smith said.

They communicated with and asked questions of Rajan C. Patal, a civil engineer, who works on the heavy construction portion of the $5.25 billion expansion to double the size of the Panama Canal. The project began in 2007, and is scheduled to finish in 2015 to accomodate more and larger ships that will travel through a new lane.

Fifth-grader Evan Cronin learned so much about the Panama Canal that he couldn’t pick his favorite.

“If you think about it, it’s huge to think how ships can travel through a big stretch of land between the Atlantic and Pacific,” Cronin said. “The idea that they’re expanding on it, and making it bigger just blows my mind.”

Officially opened in 1914, the Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, and provides a shortcut for ships to travel. The Canal, once considered among the seven wonders of the world, is 150 feet wide and 1,500 feet long.

Patel was introduced to White Oak parent Seema Patel, a Panama native, through her father who lives there. Seema Patel said the video conference gave students a chance to communicate with someone abroad for the first time.

“We were all jumping up and down because we don’t usually do something like this as a class,” fifth-grader Riley Reese said. “We usually have people do this for projects, so it really meant a lot to every single one of us.”

The communication meeting took six months to set up because of scheduling conflicts and technology issues. While the video conference lasted for about 20 minutes, the call was dropped twice. Finding a web cam in Panama was also an issue as Rajan Patal used the only one in his building.

“It’s an experience,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll never forget it.”

The students are part of the InTECC class, which is an acronym for Integrating Technology and Exploring Creativity and Collaboration. The goal of the class is to take an item from the curriculum, such as the Panama Canal, and find an expert around the world to discuss it with students.

In an ongoing process, students have talked with a geologist at Yellowstone Park, a chief of a Native American tribe and someone who lived through the Dust Bowl.

“It’s cool to talk with these real people who are still living, who are doing this work, and we can talk to them, we’re going to learn way more than we would opening a textbook,” Smith said. “It’s OK, but it’s nothing compared to their experience being here. If I have a question, who can I go to to find the answers, I don’t know all the answers. So where can I go to find the expert.”