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Article by Tommy Klug, Communications Assistant, Kenan Institute for Ethics

DukeEngage Beaufort students with their community partners at the program's closing reception at the Duke Marine Lab
The DukeEngage Beaufort team with their community partners at the program’s closing ceremony in July.

This summer, nine DukeEngage students spent ten weeks at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC working with community organizations on environmental and social issues facing coastal communities. The students worked with a variety of organizations, including the National Parks Service, the Boys and Girls Club, the NC Wildlife Resource Commission, the Coastal Carolina River Watch, and the Core Sound Museum. Students worked with communities along the NC Coast, uncovering the region’s rich history, working to protect wildlife and waterways, and mentoring local K–12 students to expand science education and social resiliency.

The DukeEngage project involved students of all years and academic disciplines, including History, Computer Science, Biology, and English. In closing remarks at the program’s send-off, Program Director Liz DeMattia commented that “If our goal with DukeEngage is to give students a diverse experience with conservation, we must include other lenses. Conservation is not just about adding science.”

This sentiment was reflected in the range of projects and organizations the students partnered with. On conservation, students worked with the National Parks Service (NPS) to monitor and record nighttime recreational activity on Cape Lookout. Students collected data on light pollution, which can disrupt sea turtle nesting by disorienting turtles as they emerge from and re-enter the water. The NPS will combine this with data on sea turtle monitoring and create a rubric for tracking and measuring recreational light pollution, with the goal of crafting policies to protect endangered wildlife.

DukeEngage Beaufort students presenting their data on recreational light pollution to inform sea turtle conservation
Students presenting their data on recreational light pollution to inform sea turtle conservation efforts for the National Parks Service.

Students also created a website for the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, compiling educational resources and a list of local volunteer organizations, and created an animated educational video on sea turtle nesting and conservation. Matthew Godfrey from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission remarked that “without DukeEngage’s partnership, we would not have the time, people, or resources to do this important work.”

Several students supported the Coastal Carolina River Watch, a nonprofit organization that advocates for protecting water quality in the White Oak River Basin—which represents 320 miles of rivers and streams and 129 miles of NC coastline—with a current full-time staff of two. Students compiled resources for educators on wastewater and industrial pollution and planned and led outreach for the annual North Carolina Marine Debris Symposium, to be held at the Duke Marine Lab this October.

Another team of students worked with the Core Sound Museum to expand access to historical materials, creating a digital library of historical documents, art, photographs, and traditions of ten coastal communities. Karen Amspacher from the Core Sound Museum emphasized the importance of “balancing out the science with a historical and cultural lens, since human history is so important, especially for coastal communities that are rapidly changing.” DE Student Spencer Moyle responded that “I don’t think any of us understood at first just how important this work was to the people here.”

Students also had the opportunity to work with local communities in Beaufort and Morehead City through the Boys and Girls Club and Carteret County Public Schools, organizing activities and curriculum for elementary and middle school students. Students designed activities and crafts with attention to science and nature and using common materials that kids could find at home. The kids made Alka Seltzer rockets, Rube Goldberg machines, animal crafts and UV bracelets. During a day trip to the Marine Lab, kids also learned how to fly and maneuver drones. Ms. Dre from the Boys and Girls Club said “We love working with Duke students. The kids they mentored wanted to try those activities again at the club and at home.”

The DE students shared that one of their challenges was teaching the importance of things not working out sometimes—like the disappointment that follows from an unexploded rocket. The importance of teaching patience and optimism was highlighted by the group of students working on resiliency education with Carteret County Public Schools (CCPS), where DE students created fables in a workshop for teachers and students to help students work through obstacles using a framework developed by the Resiliency Solution. These fables taught lessons about the importance of community connection, intergenerational learning, and flexibility, through fictional stories featuring marine characters written by the DE students. Some of the fables are being featured on the Seas the Day podcast. DukeEngagers at CCPS also trained 20 local high school students to continue serving as “Resilient Mentors” for the remainder of the summer.

After students exchanged bittersweet goodbyes with their community partners at the program’s closing ceremony, Laura Givens—Site Coordinator for the project—reflected on what made the Beaufort project unique. Echoing Liz, she described how “we were really intentional about integrating environmental science and community engagement…and engaging with a community that is so near to campus. Compartmentalizing ourselves as separate from the communities we work in is a real risk in this kind of work. But it’s hard to ‘other’ people who live just three hours away, and I think this makes the work the students did this summer more grounded in the histories and current realities of these communities.”