Lunch boxes, water shoes, sunscreen, and more… All of these are items that summer campers at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) know to pack daily. An unexpected guest speaker, an afternoon storm, or even the spontaneous consideration for group preference, could mean a change in the schedule at the drop of a hat. While that may sound seemingly disruptive, truly, it only adds to the summer camp excitement each day.

During the fall and spring semesters on the ECU Outer Banks Campus, the halls are usually quieter as undergraduate pupils attend lectures and organized school groups participate in educational K-12 programming. Summers, on the other hand, feel a bit different at CSI. Children ages 10-15 years old fill the building with their boisterous chattering as they anxiously await to hear each day’s plan.

What will they study? Where will they go? Is it a boat day? The answers to these questions usually depend on the theme of the week. Over the course of each summer, CSI hosts eight weeks of camp with four different foci – coastal and marine biology and ecology; shipwrecks and maritime archeology; art and science; and oceanography, engineering, and sustainable coastal living. Each theme is offered twice during the eight weeks.

During Coastal Kingdoms, a biology and ecology-focused camp, campers explore Outer Banks ecosystems while they learn about local ecology and the interconnectedness of these marine systems. On the first day they learn about phytoplankton which are the primary producers and basis of the food web in many marine ecosystems. With plankton and their unique adaptations set as the foundation for the week, students then learn about other organisms and ecosystems. They visit the NC Coastal Federation for a lesson about oysters and living shorelines, hear from CSI scientists about fish adaptations and habitats, and take samples of local fish populations through various techniques including traps, seine nets, and hook-and-line fishing. Anywhere they travel, they take water quality readings and consider what makes healthy aquatic habitats. Finally, the campers round out their week by visiting Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to search for bears, kayak the paddling loop, explore a freshwater wetland, and hopefully lay eyes on an elusive alligator or two.

Legends of the Atlantic, our shipwrecks and maritime archeology-focused camp, tends to draw a crowd of young history lovers and diving enthusiasts. While campers do not dive on a real shipwreck while in the care of CSI staff, the week is still immersive. On the first day, campers become familiar with the local boat-building history and industry, then design and build their own model boats to race. As the week progresses, they learn to search for identification clues on a mock wreck and can even make a wreck map of their own. Thanks to many CSI partners, campers have also had opportunities to connect with experts from NOAA’s Monitor Marine Sanctuary, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, and the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab. And what’s a ship-centric camp without boarding one for themselves? Not only will the campers cruise the Croatan Sound one day, but if they’re lucky, some of them may even get a chance to hop on a vessel in progress while visiting Bayliss Boatworks!

Shapes in Nature is the camp for those who see artistic beauty in the natural environment. Campers break out the paint and all sorts of mixed media to create science-inspired works of art. Each day in the Shapes in Nature camp begins with a short lesson about ongoing research at the Coastal Studies Institute and is usually followed by a field trip and a hands-on project. From the physics of ocean waves to the complex connections of food webs, campers find artistic ways to represent it all through methods like sculpture, photography, dance, and other visual arts. The week comes to a close with an art gallery showcasing all of the creativity and new knowledge gained throughout the week. Campers get the opportunity to show their parents and guardians, CSI faculty and staff, and visiting students around the gallery to explain their projects and detail the activities and lessons of the past few days.

Last but certainly not least, Sustainable Seas is a popular choice for campers interested in nature-based infrastructure, engineering and renewable energy. While it is good to help young minds understand scientific advances in coastal-related fields, it is even better to frame these findings in the context of sustainable living and fostering environmental stewardship. Over the course of the week, Sustainable Seas attendees learn what it means to be a resilient coastal community in the face of a changing climate and intensifying storms. Activities for these participants include building lots of hands-on models including engineered shoreline stabilization methods, wave energy converters, wind turbines, and microgrids. They even learn about decision-making at both the personal and community levels.

From budding marine biologists to archaeologists, artists, and engineers, Coastal Studies Institute summer camps offer an experience for every student.

“The experiential nature of our summer camps really sets them apart,” says Lauren Kerlin, CSI Outreach Associate and summer camp instructor. “Every lesson has a hands-on activity or field trip to follow which makes the learning experience that much more rich.”

In 2023, ninety-three individuals participated in camp programming. Some only came for one week, others came for four to ensure they saw it all. Some came from Dare County, and others traveled from as far away as the West Coast. Though each week and group looks different, some elements never change. Coastal Studies Institute summer camps offer a fun, inclusive, and exciting environment to make new friendships and learn about the coastal systems and habitats of the Outer Banks.

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.