A semester like no other. That is an apt description of this year’s UNC Institute for the Environment’s Outer Banks Field Site (OBXFS) experience. While most state schools, including UNC and ECU, were forced to “go remote” for much of the Fall, the 10 UNC students enrolled in the OBXFS were fortunate to proceed with in-person, socially distanced, education. Despite a shortened timeframe and many COVID restrictions, the students managed to carry a full course load, participate in a local internship, and explore the Outer Banks. All while maintaining a positive attitude.

The field site’s unique setting and the group’s small size made it a bit easier to accommodate the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Strict measures were in place to comply with the 3 W’s (wear, wait, wash), adhere to symptom and temperature checks, and engage in frequent cleaning and disinfection of work and common areas. Weather permitting, classes were held outside throughout the entire semester. Indoors, the students were confined to specific spaces. The usual convenience and camaraderie of field trips in the 15-passenger van succumbed to students driving their own vehicles.

Emma Bancroft, a Kitty Hawk native and junior Environmental Science major, summed it up, “It’s hard to think about what we would be doing if [the pandemic] wasn’t happening… But at the same time, I’m thankful we still get to do things in person, and without that, it would take away the whole point of this field site. We get a lot more out of it.”

The Capstone project is always at the center of the semester experience. This year’s topic was the final installation of a 3-year project investigating the interactions between septic systems and groundwater in the town of Nags Head. The students spent time in the field and in the lab collecting and processing water samples to determine the extent of septic system-groundwater interactions. Also included was a human dimensions aspect whereby residents were requested to participate in a survey that was used to assess their level of awareness, risk perception, and practices regarding septic tank systems and groundwater contamination from wastewater. Once the field work and surveys were complete, the students analyzed the data and developed conclusions.

The semester ended with a public, virtual presentation of the Capstone report, entitled: What Lies Beneath: A Socio-ecological Case Study of Septic Systems in Nags Head. Here they described their methods, findings, and interpretations. The students agreed that the Capstone provided a great research experience as well as the opportunity for collaborative learning.

Bri Thompson (third photo, far right), a junior double-majoring in Environmental Studies and Public Policy explains, “When you work on something [this] long, with different writing, explanation, and organization styles, you get good experience for how the world works. Things are not always going to go your way, and you have to be open to compromise.”

“These experiences expand our boundaries and indulge curiosity,” says Heidi Hannoush, a sophomore Environmental Science major and CSI photojournalism intern. “They also help answer the ever-important question of what you want to do with your life.”

Natalie Ollis (fourth photo, left), a junior Environmental Studies, Biology, and Business Administration major, believes the semester provided a greater appreciation for those, including faculty at CSI, who are working to understand environmental challenges.

An Environmental Studies major, Todd Davis (fourth, photo right) remarked, “I have found a strong sense of community with the other students and the places we have explored. We [were] all here to learn and experience the world around us in these weird times.”

“I know that OBXFS holds a very special place in my heart and in the heart of my peers,” says Lauren Colonair. “We were able to not only learn but apply our new knowledge in so many useful ways. We became a part of a community that welcomed us with open arms and provided us with support and a space to grow over the course of the semester. Our instructors acted not only as educators but as an extended family, which was integral to the experience. This program has become a key part of my educational experience…. and [I] will always be thankful for CSI and the OBXFS program.”

Dr. Lindsay Dubbs, Co-Director of the OBXFS, stated, “The 2020 OBXFS was a fall semester I will never forget, and not just because of the changes we had to implement due to COVID-19. This was a great group of students who were dedicated to learning, completing an excellent project together, and keeping one another and our community safe. They made a challenging semester rewarding and enjoyable.”

Led by East Carolina University (ECU), The Coastal Studies Institute is a multi-institutional research and educational partnership of the UNC System including North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington, and Elizabeth City State University.



Based at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), the North Carolina Renewable Ocean Energy Program (NCROEP) advances inter-disciplinary marine energy solutions across UNC System partner colleges of engineering at NC State University, UNC Charlotte, and NC A&T University.  Click on the links below for more information.




ECU's Integrated Coastal Programs (ECU ICP) is a leader in coastal and marine research, education, and engagement.   ECU ICP includes the Coastal Studies Institute, ECU's Department of Coastal Studies, and ECU Diving and Water Safety.


The faculty and staff at the Coastal Studies Institute come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, as well as departments and organizations including ECU Department of Biology, ECU Department of Coastal Studies, NC Sea Grant, the North Carolina Renewable Energy Program, and the UNC Institute for the Environment.


Tour the ECU Outer Banks Campus and learn about the research, education, and engagement projects of CSI and ECU Integrated Coastal Programs through our 360 virtual tour.


The ECU Outer Banks campus is home to the Coastal Studies Institute.
Located on Roanoke Island along the banks of the second largest estuary
in the United States, this coastal campus spans 213 acres of marshes, scrub wetlands, forested wetlands, and estuarine ecosystems.