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Professor Jack Puleo worked with undergraduate students to construct wave flumes in the Coastal Engineering Laboratory.

Making waves

Photos by Evan Krape

With demand for coastal engineers rising, UD professor brings the coast to classrooms

University of Delaware Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Jack Puleo studies the physics of sand dune erosion during extreme waves and storm surges. The ongoing rise in extreme weather events makes this expertise more important than ever, because coastal engineers are needed to protect the beaches and the people who live nearby. Increased flooding attributed to sea level rise caused nearly $300 million in lost property value in Delaware between 2005 and 2017, according to the nonprofit First Street Foundation.

These problems are so important that Puleo, the director of UD’s Center for Applied Coastal Research, wants to inspire the next generation of coastal experts.

“My goal is to get more people excited about coastal research,” said Puleo. “There is a big demand for coastal engineers.”

UD Engineering Prof. Jack Puleo watches a wave break inside a wave flume, a device used to model coastal processes.

To meet this demand, Puleo wants to help high school students understand coastal processes, which are not commonly included in high school curricula. With support from the Office of Naval Research, Puleo is building wave flumes, devices that model the behavior of waves and resulting effect on beaches, and delivering them to 12 high schools along the East Coast, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

Puleo uses these wave flumes to demonstrate how different ocean waves affect the shoreline. He starts with small waves to show how the sand of the beach builds up over time. Then he shows how the beach quickly erodes when the waves intensify.

“These are visual, hands-on demonstrations,” said Puleo. “Students can see — and measure — what happens as the waves get bigger, as a tsunami hits, as sea levels rise, and more.”

The flumes can also help students understand the mathematical equations that explain wave behavior. Sensors track the shape and speed of waves, and an electronics box transmits data to a computer that plots it on graphs. Students can also add accessories, such as a sea wall or rocks as armoring elements, and ping pong balls to track their movement under changing conditions.

The lessons don’t end when Puleo heads home. He leaves behind carefully developed modules and worksheets so that math and science teachers can use the wave flume on more concepts throughout the school year.

Breaking waves affect the sand underneath, represented here by tiny beads.

As Puleo was building his network of schools, he found an ally in Michael Poff, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and master’s degree in coastal engineering from UD. Poff, the president of Coastal Engineering Consultants, based in Naples, Florida, has experienced the effects of the shortage of coastal engineers firsthand.

“As a consultant and business owner, we can’t hire enough talent because the talent doesn’t exist,” he said. Poff met Puleo in 2012 at the 33rd International Conference on Coastal Engineering, held in Santander Spain. Their paths crossed again at the 2018 conference where they discussed their interests in STEM and the need for more coastal engineers.

Poff and his wife, Danielle, are passionate about STEM outreach and helped Puleo connect with Todd Roberts, director of the Academy of Engineering at Baron Collier High School in Naples. In February, Puleo packed a couple of flumes in his F250 pickup truck and headed south, delivering one to a high school in North Carolina and another to Baron Collier High School.

Roberts has already completed a half dozen lessons, much to the delight of his students, and they’re expanding upon what they’ve learned. For example, the students recently used a 3D printer to design and produce a boat, and then they calculated the forces under the surface as the boat travelled through the flume.

The wave flumes help students learn about the ocean and simultaneously shore up their general math and science skills. By studying the volume of sand consisting of the beach profile, students develop a deeper understanding of integration — a critical component of calculus — and other math concepts. “If you give them an equation and show them how the equation works, comes to fruition, it is so much more powerful than just asking them to see it on paper,” he said.

Students can measure how a ping pong ball travels through a wave flume, imparting lessons about the science of the shore.

For these students, who live near the coast, the wave flume leads them to ask new questions when they visit the shore. Where does the beach begin, exactly? Why do the waves take the shapes they do? Why does seaweed wash up with some waves?

“The kids are getting interested in taking care of what is around them,” said Roberts.

High school students and teachers are not the only beneficiaries of this wave flume project. Undergraduate students Kyle Rumaker and Eric Noe have learned a lot while helping Puleo assemble the flumes.

Rumaker, a civil engineering major, grew up near Ocean City, New Jersey and has been a lifeguard for five years.

“I’ve always been really interested in the ocean and loved the beach, and I’ve always had a mind for science and math,” he said. “Coastal engineering was a natural fit for me. Working in this lab has encouraged me to continue to pursue my education in coastal engineering.” While growing up, he didn’t have access to classroom experiments that demonstrated the activity of the waves he saw at the shore. “This type of experiment, so simple in design, can show what’s happening and really spark the interest of students,” he said.

For Noe, an environmental engineering major who grew up in the Midwest, coastal engineering was not on his radar until he got to UD. Had it been available, he would have relished the opportunity to learn about concepts from simple wave mechanics to the importance of sea walls constructed to protect coastlines earlier.

“I had my physics labs and chemistry labs, but there was nothing like this,” he said. “If I would have learned this as a high school student, it definitely would have opened my eyes to a brand new subject.”

UD Prof. Jack Puleo (above) found an ally in building his network of schools and helping students understand the power of waves. Michael Poff, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and master’s degree in coastal engineering from UD, is the president of Coastal Engineering Consultants, based in Naples, Florida. Poff knows firsthand the effects of the shortage of coastal engineers. “As a consultant and business owner, we can’t hire enough talent because the talent doesn’t exist,” Poff said.

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