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Port of Tampa ships out partnership with USF

An aerial photo of Port Tampa Bay. PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Though Port Tampa Bay handled nearly one-third of all cargo moving through Florida last year, Mark Luther, associate professor in physical oceanography at USF’s College of Marine Science, said the port will soon require a workforce expansion.

“Maritime commerce fuels the global economy, and if the economy is going to grow in a sustainable fashion, ports and harbors … have to grow along with it,” he said. “A lot of the people who work in that business now are getting older and nearing retirement, and there aren’t a lot of young professionals entering that field.”

Luther said this initiative to expand the workforce of ports in the Southeast was one of the driving forces behind USF and Port Tampa Bay’s decision to enter a three-year research partnership.

While the partnership was announced late May, Luther said he is currently developing a curriculum for an introduction to a series of planned online courses. Luther has collaborated on port research with Port Tampa Bay for over 20 years, and he said the courses are expected to be part of a future standalone certificate program in maritime transportation studies.

“There is no other coursework within the university that focuses on this,” Luther said. “Within an existing degree program … if you take four of the five courses, you could get a certificate in maritime transportation studies or port maritime studies to go along with your degree.”

This program is not only aimed at students in marine science, as Luther said students in any field with some relation to port operations — such as engineering, business, finance or even public health — could work for a port and benefit from this certification. He said the course could also serve as continuing education for those already in the port industry.

To create the curriculum for the introduction course, Luther said he worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management to create a prototype web tool for the outline of the course, named “Port Tomorrow.” The tool is broken into three sections — Marine Transportation, Port Communities and Coastal Hazards — and features a dropdown bar which displays port statistics, maps and background info for each of the tool’s segments.

The webpage, like the introduction course, focuses on using Tampa Bay as an example for how a port operates and interacts with the local environment, the economy and surrounding communities. Luther said a specific lesson topic includes the environmental effects of ports on water quality, air quality and marine habitats.

He said while he is the only USF faculty member developing the curriculum, he plans on formalizing relationships with faculty in other colleges to help develop later courses. These include the Patel College of Global Sustainability, College of Engineering, College of Public Health and the Muma College of Business.

“I’m working on the … overview course, and once I get that finished — which I hope will be in the next few weeks — we’ll start to bring on other partners from these other colleges,” Luther said. “I’ve had informal discussions with them but nothing in writing yet.”

Future courses in the certificate program could teach students how to meet new interdisciplinary needs emerging in the port industry, and Luther said Port Tampa Bay could merge its existing internship program, as well as a field research trip to the port, with future curricula.

“People at Port Tampa Bay … have been reviewing a lot of my course material and suggesting topics that they’re very interested in or that they would expect a potential hire to have some knowledge of,” Luther said.

Bob Callahan, Vice President of Operations for Port Tampa Bay, said while the port and USF have collaborated on maritime port research since the early 1990’s, this new partnership allows for an expansion of this relationship by permitting the port to work with the university in areas which would normally be considered outside the port’s normal area of operations.

“The (partnership) allows (Luther) to draw from the expertise of the senior advisers here at Port Tampa Bay,” Callahan said. “If it’s information for the (partnership), then we’re authorized to provide that.”

Other than developing the certificate program, Callahan said USF and Port Tampa Bay will be working under the partnership to improve marine sensor technology and its Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS), which provides oceanographic data — such as currents, water levels and wave height — to help ships navigate safely and more efficiently. 

“We need to get valid information that helps people to make decisions and analyze a situation which could be profitable or dangerous,” Callahan said. “A ship could go aground and possibly do damage to the ecosystem, to the ship or to life (on board).”

Luther said depending on how many students enroll, he expects the maritime port study introduction course to be available in the upcoming fall semester. To view NOAA’s web tool for an outline of this course, please visit