Father and son tell how to turn children into scientists at beach

An illustration of the authors, Orrin Pilkey and Charles Pilkey. Their new book “Lessons From the Sand: Family-friendly Science Activities you can do on a Carolina Beach” is an extension of the father and son’s shared passion.
An illustration of the authors, Orrin Pilkey and Charles Pilkey. Their new book “Lessons From the Sand: Family-friendly Science Activities you can do on a Carolina Beach” is an extension of the father and son’s shared passion.

In the ’80s, Charles Pilkey spent two years working at a Texas oil company – and then he quit, bought a motorcycle and aimed it east. Soon he was going up and down the Atlantic coast, seeking the right boat. He found it in the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and set sail.

“It was a time when I was drifting, literally and metaphorically,” he says. “I read every single book about the sea.”

He never did make it around the world — his inexperience would have gotten him killed, he admits – but he did connect with the ocean. His father, geologist Orrin Pilkey, spent years at sea as well, though in research vessels. There just may be saltwater in the Pilkeys’ veins.

The new book “Lessons From the Sand: Family-friendly Science Activities you can do on a Carolina Beach” is an extension of father and son’s shared passion. It’s focused on beaches, with scientific experiments designed to be done by children and their parents. Each experiment, in true scientific form, is designed to lead to more questions. This father and son invite children to use the scientific method to draw their own conclusions. Is it better, for instance, to repeatedly replenish a beach or to simply fall back as an island migrates, as animals and plants do? And why would there be an ancient shoreline visible 100 miles inland?

As scientists, the Pilkeys know the sea is rising and that beaches are in danger. As authors, they want children to come to these conclusions themselves. “We don’t say, ‘You gotta retreat from the beach,’” Charles says. “We ask them to think for themselves.”

With degrees in geology and sculpture, Charles, 59, is an artist and a scientist who lives in Charlotte, while Orrin, 81, is professor emeritus of geology at Duke University and resides in Durham. In working on the book, Charles says, he realized there was an environmental message at its core: Beaches are beautiful, complex systems that are in danger from overdevelopment and sea level rise.

Kids don’t like to be lectured to or given long, drawn-out explanations. The challenge, then, was to concisely guide them to logical, scientific conclusions they could call their own.

In some instances, they’ve included versions of lessons Orrin uses with his Duke students.

“Some of the stuff in here about the beach is stuff any student, any geologist with three or four courses would probably know about, but regular people don’t,” Orrin says. Some of the questions in “Lessons from the Sand” are the same questions he asks his students in the field: Why are all the shells faced a certain way? What are these tiny holes in the beach? How do dunes form? Why does some sand “bark” under bare feet?

“I remember a day on the beach in South Carolina when my mother picked up a black shell and asked him why are some shells black, and he didn’t know the answer,” Charles says. The answer – that shells turn black when they’re buried in mud and deprived of oxygen – led to more questions: This is a sandy beach; where’s the mud? It was on the back side of the island, of course, which led to the conclusion that the island had migrated and that shells that had once been buried in sound-side mud were now on the beach.

“Most of the world’s barrier islands are eroding. They’re thinning,” Orrin says. Many of his recent research publications have been on barrier island evolution worldwide. There are about 2,200 of them, he says, and they’re responding to sea level rise by becoming narrow enough for overwash – sand carried by tides and breaking waves – to go all the way across. In North Carolina, this is most obvious on the sections of Hatteras Island where the island is not much wider than the road.

“We think that as sea level rises, replenishment will become less stable. And of course it’s very expensive. A 2-mile beach north of Rodanthe, two years ago, was replenished at $10 million dollars a mile and essentially most of it’s gone now,” Orrin says. “That’s in a futile effort to save Highway 12.”

Orrin and Charles are passionate about the sea and the beach, and they’re exasperated about the treatment of both. One of Orrin’s major interests, for example, is in developed shorelines and issues related to seawalls, jetties and other hardened structures. Since writing the book, Charles has paid a lot more attention to the politics of coastal development.

“By the time a fifth-grader today is a 30-year-old, the sea level rise is going to be very obvious,” Orrin says, pointing out that atoll nations and places in the Arctic are already being evacuated because of rising seas (Orrin’s other new book, “Retreat From a Rising Sea,” addresses this topic directly.)

But there is hope, Charles says, if today’s children learn to think scientifically.

“The reason I think that is a possibility is that I’ve seen it in Japan, one of the worst environmentally damaging countries in the world, but they’ve kind of changed their tune a little bit,” Charles says. “It started with educating their kids about the perils of burning plastic and about respecting nature.”

Accordingly, Charles would like to see kids go beyond “Lessons in the Sand.” He’d like them to venture out on their own and no longer need the book to come up with their own experiments. And if his book gets kids interested in any kind of science – it doesn’t have to be beach science – he’d consider that a win.

“We are a scientifically illiterate culture and I feel obliged to remedy that,” Charles says.

Reach Hill at

Meet the Authors

Charles and Orrin Pilkey will speak about “Lessons from the Sand” 2-4:30 p.m. June 7 at Duke University’s Hill House, 900 S. Duke St., Durham. This event is organized by Duke’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute but is open to the public.

More information about the books:

▪ “Lessons From the Sand: Family-friendly Science Activities you can do on a Carolina Beach” by Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey, $19, (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Best for families, though adults have told Orrin they appreciate its readability.

▪ “Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change” by Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis and Keith C. Pilkey, $29.95 (Columbia University Press, 2016). For adults.