The students looked like they were running drill practice as they walked up and down the shore of Carrot Island. They weren’t enrolled in ROTC though, and no one had lost a valuable. In fact, the students were searching for the exact opposite: they were looking for trash. Judging from the heavy garbage bags they were toting, this was a sadly successful mission.
The students had plenty of trash in their futures. The class of 11 undergraduates was enrolled in the UNC’s Institute for the Environment (IE) Morehead City Field Site at the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS). Located in the southern Outer Banks, IMS is a marine lab that studies everything from algae to hurricanes to fisheries. It may sound unglamorous to add trash to that list of research topics, but thanks to work done by the IE Field Site Capstone course, we can do just that.
The Field Site Capstone (ENEC 698) is designed to immerse students in a topic pertinent to the Morehead City area. Students are charged to think like consultants and work in small groups to ultimately create a report and presentation attended by the public and relevant stakeholders. After serving as a Graduate Research Consultant for last year’s class, I was assigned to work with the Fall 2015 Capstone, which focused on the prolific problem of marine debris.
The students decided to investigate the impact of human recreational activities on the presence and distribution of coastal marine debris. Their study sites were beaches used by people in different ways. One beach, for example, was on an island mainly visited by the odd boating party looking for a temporary place to anchor. Another study site was Shackleford Banks, which receives high volumes of tourist traffic in the summer. The Capstone students were interested in exploring the connection between beach use and trash along the shoreline. After framing their question, the students started to develop a research plan.
The group-based format of the Capstone makes the GRC role particularly necessary. As a graduate student, the research process is almost second-nature to me, but many of the undergrads had never designed an experiment or packed for a field day. My role was especially pronounced in the first half of the class, as I helped the groups organize their research plans. Of course, it was also important for me to assist with fieldwork, which conveniently enough is at the beach!
At each site, the students paced systematically along the shoreline, documenting and collecting any debris. The debris they found was analyzed in various ways, including taking measurements and quantifying bacterial abundances. Meanwhile, other groups within the Capstone worked on supporting research questions. One group conducted an experiment to document organisms that colonized pieces of marine debris over time. Another used data from The Ocean Conservancy to compare marine debris in Morehead City to coastlines worldwide. I was available during all parts of the research process, including near the end as the students synthesized their work into a final report and presentation.
Among their many findings, the Capstone class reported that small pieces of plastic were the most common type of marine debris on Carteret County beaches. They recommended that future beach clean-ups focus on zones of the shoreline with the highest concentration of debris. Since the students presented these results to an audience that included local environmental professionals, their findings may help future beach clean-ups more efficiently remove debris.
Thanks to the 2015 Field Site Capstone, beaches in the Crystal Coast now stand a better chance of being crystal clean!