Coastal Classroom

 In Coastal Life, Education, OBX Community

Walk into the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) campus on any given day in April and chances are you will find students from across Northeastern North Carolina studying power potential, creating energy from waves, investigating a shipwreck, or creating land-use development plans. 

csi kids diggingIn 2013 the Coastal Studies Institute opened their facility in Wanchese in order to better provide meaningful opportunities and hands-on experiences to foster interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (STEM) and Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Design, and Math Education (STEAM) programs. From school field trips to summer camps, CSI continuously develops engaging and exciting programs for students. 

CSI will offer four, week-long camps this summer and one three-day program during spring break. 

“We really try hard to have a hook, to get kids excited about science through fun, hands-on things,” says David Sylbert, K-12 Education Specialist. 

Participants get to go out on the water in the CSI’s fleet of vessels, visit research labs, trawl, hook-and-line fish, and more, all while hitting a strong set of educational objectives. These camps are open to anyone interested in the program. 

The summer camps, which are targeted at 10-15 year olds “combine the fun of being out in the natural environment of the Outer Banks with learning a little bit of science and the scientific process along the way,” according to Sybert. 

csi waders in fieldChildren can go snorkeling over oyster beds, engineer buoys and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), and study water quality and properties. Programs offered through the school curriculum, such as land use and development planning projects are offered on-site during summer camps as well. 

Although CSI UNC is mandated to serve the K-12 school system in Northeastern North Carolina, their passion for spreading knowledge far exceeds any state mandate. Last year 2800 students were served on-site and 2500 students were served off-site through distance learning capabilities. 

The CSI Education and Outreach program focuses on grades 5-12, providing engaging learning opportunities specifically tailored for each age group. One of their more popular offerings last year was their ocean energy program, offered at both the middle and high school level. 

Middle school students can visit the lab and learn about ocean processes and how those work, while high schoolers go even further, learning about kinetic energy and how to convert that into electrical energy.

“They actually build their own device that will take either waves or currents and make electricity from it. It’s a very small amount of electricity but they can see how it works,” explains Sybert.

csi more netsTheir wave tank, located at the Wanchese facility, directly mirrors the state-funded renewable ocean energy project that is being spearheaded by the CSI. Students can test their devices in this wave tank and see first hand how harnessing naturally occurring energy can change the future of renewable energy. 

Although the CSI receives state funding for their renewable ocean energy program, the Education and Outreach program is completely self-funded. Each program maintains a relatively low cost, $10 per student, thanks to generous donations from local businesses and community members.  

“We understand that funding is tight for field trip opportunities, so we work with the schools in many ways to try and raise funds or scholarship dollars for the students to come here,” says John McCord, the Interim Director of Education, Outreach & Communication. 

csi kids microscopeThe funds and scholarship dollars go towards not just student fees, but also bussing costs, which can often exceed the program fees. Scholarship money, donated by Towne Bank, Dominion Power, Duke Energy, and through personal donations to their 501C3 foundation, help keep these invaluable opportunities affordable.

During their sustainable coastal communities program, students are taken into the field to learn about what ecosystems need in order to be healthy, and how to balance those needs with community needs. Students are given a topography map and are challenged to use sustainable design to reduce the impact of the community on the environment. 

“We want them to learn… we need to find a healthy balance of those things. If we just wanted environmental stability that would be easy; we would just rope everything off and not let anybody in, but we live here now, so how do we balance those needs to find something that works for everybody?” asks McCord.

Depending on the time of year and weather, students enrolled in this program either participate in a field study or work in the plankton lab. 

Other projects that the Coastal Studies Institute has undertaken include building an oyster research sanctuary and aquaculture system in Hatteras, wetland cisterns and rain gardens in Manteo, and installing wind turbines at multiple locations within their 13-county service area. 

UNC CSI also offers an internship opportunity for Manteo High School students and is a partner for the Remotely Operated Vehicle workshop and competitions.  These ROVs are underwater vehicles maneuvered by a person operating a remote aboard a surface vessel and act as underwater eyes when weather or other environmental factors prevent researchers from conducting dives. 

coastal studies instituteCSI provides opportunities far beyond K-12 as well, through partnerships with East Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina State, and UNC Chapel Hill and Wilmington. These partnerships place students from the various universities with duly-appointed professors to complete internships and field research. UNC CSI also offers paid research positions funded through grants. 

In addition to programs for students, The Coastal Studies Institute also hosts monthly “Science on the Sound” lectures where community members can learn about a myriad of topics ranging from winter gardening to the effects of the Gulf Stream on North Carolina waterways. 

Information from these lectures is available online on the UNC Coastal Studies Institute YouTube channel. These lectures provide a vast array of information that is valuable to both tourists and locals, including potentially life-saving information on rip currents as well as hurricane and wave surge modeling. 

Each month the lecture is filmed and broadcasted live on their YouStream channel in a multi-camera format.

Programs like the ones offered by UNC CSI are much needed additions to the school curriculum and are indispensable tools for developing and furthering student interest in STEM objectives. Thousands of students each year are given opportunities that would be impossible to create if not for the Coastal Studies Institute and scholarship money donated by our
community. ♦

Mallory Lengel grew up in Southern Maryland and moved to the OBX two years ago. Since moving she’s learned to hang glide and tried her hand at surfing but primarily continues to ride her pony.

Photography courtesy Coastal Studies Institute.

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