Charleston Harbor is an important piece of the region's livelihood.

That's why the State Ports Authority recently launched a workshop to help teach local middle school students about the importance of dredging the commercial waterway for larger cargo vessels.

The workshop, piloted this school year at Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant, includes problem-solving exercises about harbor dredging.

The exercises are an extension of the port-centric modules introduced at the school years ago, aimed at teaching students about one of the region's largest economic engines.

Deborah Belflower, a sixth-grade science teacher at Moultrie Middle, said it's important to teach children about the port.

"I've always felt like students should know about the water they live by," she said. "They see the large containerships and they often have no idea about what's on them and how it gets here."

The SPA's harbor-deepening workshop puts students in the shoes of engineers, accountants and others who are working to determine how deep Charleston Harbor should go from its current 45-foot depth.

"One thing that everyone has been interested in is touring the container terminal and having some type of activity to do with team-building and problem-solving," said Matt Tomsic, a manager of external affairs at the SPA. "So we put together a harbor-deepening one where students break into teams and work through some of the decisions and data we have to go through to deepen the harbor."

Deep thoughts

The SPA wants to deepen the harbor's navigation channel to at least 50 feet to accommodate larger ships that will be able to steam through the Panama Canal once that waterway is expanded. The $300 million dredging project is being researched by the Army Corps of Engineers. The federal agency is looking at the feasibility of deepening the shipping lane between 48 and 52 feet. Its report is to be released this fall.

The SPA wants to have the harbor deepened by 2018, a timeline that mirrors the added capacity of the new $700 million container terminal opening that year at the southern end of the old Navy base in North Charleston.

Charleston Harbor currently can receive big ships that draft 48 feet of water and carry the equivalent of more than 9,500, 20-foot shipping containers when the tide is high enough.

The SPA's dredge workshop is one of a series of programs the SPA uses to engage youths across the state. The maritime agency hosts port tours throughout the school year and often taps students to help name cargo terminal cranes and other large apparatus.

"Our education program is an important part of the port's community outreach. It engages students around true business issues, like harbor deepening, that we discuss every day," SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said.

The SPA's harbor-deepening sessions are taught by members of the agency's external affairs department. The workshops have broadened beyond Moultrie Middle, reaching to other Charleston County schools like Fort Johnson Middle School on James Island.

The maritime agency plans to add more schools in the region and form other programs throughout the state.

The SPA is working on a similar problem-solving workshop for the Upstate, aimed at highlighting the importance of the authority's new inland port in Greer.

Tomsic of the external affairs office describes that workshop to include loading empty cargo boxes attached to the train car that travels between the Port of Charleston and the Spartanburg County facility.

Teamwork required

The SPA's harbor-deepening workshop starts with a brief video that explains details about containerships and the importance of Charleston Harbor and various jobs on the waterway. Afterward students are split into small groups and assigned the task of determining whether Charleston Harbor should be deepened to 48 or 50 feet.

The task includes mathematical equations that factor in expenses like staff salaries, Students calculate how many extra containers the port could handle as the channel gets deeper.

Students also can choose the apparatus needed for the dredge, in addition to reviewing how deepening will impact oyster beds and marshes. The impact study is real-time since the Army Corps is currently researching how much restoration is needed to mitigate the impact of the harbor deepening.

The dredging apparatus is a choice between a cutter dredge or hopper head dredge.

The hopper head, described as a giant vacuum cleaner, pulls sediment from the bottom of the harbor floor. The cutter dredge drills into the bottom of the harbor and is ideal for breaking up rock, but one of its downsides is that it costs more.

"We've had students who wanted to go to 50 feet because they can get more containers in, but said we wanted to use a slower dredge to save money," Tomsic explains.

Fort Johnson Middle School students John Jones described the workshop as an eye-opening experience. The 14-year-old eighth-grader played the role of an environmental scientist during a recent deepening exercise.

"I learned that teamwork is definitely necessary to make stuff happen," he said.

Chase Michaelsen, also a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the school, agreed.

"This is good because of the fact it was real-world applications," Michaelsen said. "Usually it seems the activities seem kind of fake, but with this you really see how big those ships are and how to get them into the harbor."

Michaelsen, who played the role of his group's engineer, said it was fun to do the calculations for the dredging project.

"It was interesting to get to calculate how much (material) you actually need to take away or the amount of days you need (for the dredge)," he said.

In the end, his group decided it was best to take Charleston Harbor to 48 feet. "It was due to cost," he said. "It would be done faster and we could still get (the ships) in."

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 or