Real World Math: Exploratory Lessons - Whale Watch

Data Analysis may not be the most enthralling topic for math students but perhaps this real world situation will draw their interest. 

The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the most endangered species of whale on the planet with an estimated 300-400 in existence today.  These baleen whales are threatened by ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear as they migrate along the eastern coast of North America.  Since these problems are caused by humans, it is incumbent upon us to find the solutions.

This activity includes NOAA’s right whale sighting data for the region around Cape Cod from April – September in 2011.  The sample includes over 250 sightings presented in a Google Earth kmz file and in spreadsheet format.  In the spreadsheet form, the students will see a massive list of numbers, but when the data is represented in Google Earth, some presumptions can be made.

The main goal of the Whale Watch activity is to make sense of data and suggest solutions to a problem.  The activity does not include directions for the students and so it is up to the teacher to lead them through the exercise.  Facilitate their learning experience with discussions and provide more information as the activity progresses.  I suggest several ways you can approach this lesson in the Teacher Notes download provided above.  An emphasis should be put on organizing and representing data and looking for patterns in numbers.  Whatever course of action you follow, you will want the students to appreciate that real world problems don’t come with directions.

Note:  There are a number of downloads available below that you can share with students as the activity progresses.  Suggestions for sharing are given in the Teacher Notes.  Also, included videos are from YouTube, so that may cause a problem if that site is blocked at your school.  As with most Real World Math activities, Whale Watch can be done at home.

Suggested links:


  • Organize and examine data
  • Develop and evaluate inferences based on data
  • Make conjectures about possible relationships in the data
  • Propose conclusions and solutions based on data

Teacher Notes
Right Whale Migration (kmz)
Sightings Data by Group Size (kmz)
Sightings Data by Month (kmz)
Some Solutions (kmz)
Sightings Data (spreadsheet)

Science Topics
Conservation & Sustainability, Zoology
Technology Topics
GPS & Satellites, Online & Software Tools
Math Topics
Data, Graphing & Statistics, Mean, Median, Mode
K-6, Middle School, Educator
5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade

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