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UNCW's coastal engineering program will graduate its first cohort next year

Kelly Kenoyer
Professor Joe Long, right, and student Noah Johnson, holding a bouy, explain how the fixture can measure numerous indicators in the ocean to a group of children.

At a climate change engineering expo in late April, members of the UNCW Coastal Engineering Program showcased their skills and taught children about erosion.

Kids love a good demo, and professor Joe Long of the UNCW Coastal Engineering program is quite the showman. He has a group of young students build two sandy shorelines in a pool of water, to see which structures survive storms without eroding.

One group builds a tall hill of sand and the other build one which is low and flat. The kids take small houses on stilts and press them into the sand.

“Remind me what makes waves in the ocean,” Long asks.

“WIND!” the children exclaim.

Long nods approvingly, then turns on a fan. Lapping waves slowly start to pull sand away from the kids’ shorelines. As he dials the wind up higher, simulating a hurricane, more and more sand gets washed away, forming a carved out lip in the sand.

"We call that a scarp," he explains. "And look what the waves did — the waves carved that scarp in the beach. But it doesn't stay like that forever."

Kelly Kenoyer
This miniature wave tank uses a fan to simulate ocean waves, showcasing how the water can errode sandy beaches.

Although a lot of the barrier island washes away during these storms, Long points out that wind can drive sand back onto the shore — so long as there are plants there to catch it — and build berms. The kids use a hairdryer to blow sand down a narrow tunnel and watch as a few plants stuck inside capture the granules and drop them onto the shoreline, rather than letting them blow further inland.

The wave-making demo is a miniature version of what UNCW’s new coastal engineering program will soon be able to do with some new tech: a large-scale wave flume. It's essentially a large water tank that can simulate ocean waves. It’s a draw for prospective students of the UNCW undergraduate coastal engineering program, which Long says is the first program of its kind in the country.

"We need more workforce," he explains. "It's time for us to be training some at the undergraduate level. A number of these students have done internships with the Department of Defense and the Army Corps of Engineers in the US Geological Survey and local engineering firms, because that workforce is generally needed to solve the kinds of problems that we have.”

The first students from the new program are set to graduate next December or May, and Long says they'll be fulfilling a major need in the workforce, even as others move on to graduate school to continue conducting research.