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Building Beaches

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A day at the beach is a wonderful way to spend time with your family and friends. You can swim, play games, and build sand castles. But have you ever thought about how all of that sand got there and wondered why the shoreline weaves in and out of the ocean? In this science project, you will investigate how ocean waves build beaches by making a model of the beach and shoreline. All you need is a tiny surfer and a beach volleyball court for your model, and you can imagine that you are in beautiful Hawaii!


Areas of Science
Time Required
Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Material Availability
Readily available
Low ($20 - $50)
No issues

Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies

This science fair project is based on one found in the following science project book:

  • VanCleave, Janet. Oceans For Every Kid. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1996. 92-93.


Build a model beach and see how waves affect the shoreline of the beach.


There is nothing better than spending a sunny day at the beach. There is always a lot to do. Build a sand castle, investigate tide pools, and just relax. But have you ever wondered how the beach you are standing on came to be or if it will ever change? A beach is a geological formation made up of loose rock particles, such as sand, gravel, and shell fragments, along the shoreline of a body of water.

There are a few key parts that make up a beach, as shown in Figure 1 below. The beach berm is the part that is mostly above water. This is the active shoreline. The top of the berm is known as the crest and the part that slopes toward the water is called the face. Figure 2 below shows how the face slopes down toward the water at a real beach in Hawaii. At the bottom of the face, there may be a trough, and farther into the water there maybe one or more sandbars parallel to the beach. At a point inland where the waves can not reach, the wind takes over. The wind blows the sand into features beyond the crest. These features are known as dunes.

Drawing of a beach shorelineImage Credit: Michelle Maranowski, Science Buddies / Science Buddies

The shoreline at the beach is broken up into three parts. The trough is the area where water meets the sand. Further up the shore theres a face where the sand is sloped towards the water. Finally at the top of the shoreline is the crest where the sand face stops sloping and lies flat.

Figure 1. Diagram of a typical beach.

The erosion of rock formations in the water, coral reefs, and headlands create rock particles that the waves move onshore, offshore, and along the shore, creating the beach. Continual erosion of the shoreline by waves also changes the beach over time. When larger and stronger waves hit the shoreline, such as in a storm, more shoreline is eroded. One change that erosion can cause is the appearance of a headland. A headland is land, usually made of larger rocks, that juts out from the coastline and into the water and affects how the surrounding shoreline is eroded.

Photo from a beach in Hawaii shows sand sloping towards the waterImage Credit: Michelle Maranowski, Science Buddies / Science Buddies

Figure 2. This is Tunnels Beach on the island of Kauai, part of Hawaii. Notice how the beach slopes down toward the water.

In this science project, you will make a model to investigate how water makes a beach and how a headland affects beach formation. Have fun and remember to bring your sunscreen and icy soda to your handmade beach!

Terms and Concepts



Have an adult help you do further research by visiting the following websites, which give information about shorelines and erosion:

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). Restore Your Shore. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  • # Link Name="OceanSci_p011.2" Value="HtmlAnchor" HtmlText="Scientific American" #]. (n.d.). What Causes Beach Erosion?. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  • State of Delaware. (n.d.). Climate Change: Shoreline erosion and migration. Retrieved June 26, 2012.

For help creating graphs, try this website:

  • National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.

Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

  1. Cover the bottom of the paint roller pan with 5 cups of sand.
  2. Build up a small beach with most, but not all, of the sand at the shallow end of the pan.
  3. Slowly pour 6 cups of water into the deep end of the pan. Let the water and sand settle for 5 minutes.
    1. How has the beach changed during this time? Your beach should now look similar to Figure 3 below.
  4. Take a picture of the beach so that you have a record of how it looked. Note where the shoreline is. The shoreline is where the beach and the water meet.
Paint roller pan filled with sandImage Credit: Michelle Maranowski, Science Buddies / Science Buddies

Figure 3. This is an example of the model beach in the paint roller pan.

  1. Make sure the plastic water bottle is empty and has its lid on. Lay the water bottle horizontally so it is floating in the deep end of the pan, along the beach.
  2. Set the timer for 1 minute. Start the timer and then bob the water bottle up and down in the water with your fingertips to create waves.
    1. If the waves get so big that water splashes out of the pan, make the waves smaller.
  3. At the end of 1 minute, stop bobbing the water bottle and take a picture of the beach. How does it look compared to the first picture? Write down your observations in a data table, like Table 1 below, in your lab notebook.
    1. In your data table, this beach type will be called "Without Headland."
    2. After you are finished with the experiment, you can print out and put your pictures in your lab notebook, too. Be sure to keep track of which pictures you take match each step in the experiment.
Beach Type Time Observations Picture
Without Headland 0 minutes    
1 minute    
2 minutes    
With Headland 0 minutes    
1 minute    
2 minutes    

Table 1. In your lab notebook, record your observations in a data table like this one.
  1. Repeat steps 6-7 one more time for a total of 2 minutes of waves.
    1. Record your observations and take a picture to put in your lab notebook. How does your beach change with time?
  2. Empty out, clean, and dry your paint roller pan.
  3. Repeat steps 1-9 two more times.
    1. Multiple trials help scientists make sure that their results are accurate and reproducible.
    2. Remember to record all of your observations in a data table like Table 1 in your lab notebook and to take pictures.
  4. You will now use the gravel to model a headland. Repeat steps 1-3 and then make a mound out of 2 cups of aquarium gravel in the middle of the shoreline. The headland should be partly in the water and partly on the beach, as shown in Figure 4 below.
Pile of aquarium gravel on sand within a paint roller panImage Credit: Michelle Maranowski, Science Buddies / Science Buddies

Figure 4. This is an example of the model beach in the paint roller pan.

  1. Repeat steps 4-9, but in step 7a in your data table this beach type will be called "With Headland."
  2. Repeat steps 11-12 two more times.
    1. Remember to record all of your observations in your lab notebook in a data table like Table 1.
  3. Review your observations and pictures. How does the beach change over time when it does not have a headland compared to when it does have a headland? How do the headlands affect where the water goes? Does the water swirl more at the sides? Did the distance between the shoreline and the edge of the roller pan change?
    1. Print out the pictures for your lab notebook, to go along with all observations that you make.
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Global Connections

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

This project explores topics key to Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


  • How do the waves erode the beach if you continue to make them for more than 2 minutes? Try this science project again but make waves for 5, and then 10, additional minutes. How does the beach without the headland compare to the beach with the headland when waves are made for a longer amount of time?
  • Either increase or decrease the speed of bobbing the water bottle up and down. Does this affect how the beach changes over time?
  • Use a pencil or dowel to make smaller waves and see how this affects the shoreline.
  • Tape a ruler to the side of the paint-roller pan and measure how the shoreline changes as a result of wave action. Measure from the shoreline to the end of the roller pan with the ruler every time you take a picture. How much did the distance change compared to the where the original shoreline was?
  • Plot your data. Make two plots, one corresponding to the beach without the headland, and one for the beach with the headland. Label the x-axis Time and the y-axis Distance to the Shore.
    • If you need help making plots or would like to make them online, go to the following website: Create a Graph.
    • Print out the pictures of how your beach changed and the observations you made. Place all of the data on a display board so that you can show everyone how beaches are made.
  • Pour a large volume of water all at once into the deep end to simulate a storm surge or tsunami. What happens to the beach?
  • If you are interested in a science project about erosion, try Riprap: It's Not Hip Hop But Erosion Stop.


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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Building Beaches." Science Buddies, 20 Nov. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/OceanSci_p011/ocean-sciences/building-beaches. Accessed 16 Apr. 2024.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, November 20). Building Beaches. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/OceanSci_p011/ocean-sciences/building-beaches

Last edit date: 2020-11-20
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