Real World Math: Project Based Learning - U-Boat Hunt

This lesson places students in WWII as code breaking members of Britain’s Station X. 

After solving several cipher messages from Washington, the search is on.  U-boat latitude and longitude positions are hidden in number patterns for the students to translate.  The students will use their knowledge of numbers and inductive reasoning to find the missing numbers in these sequences and write a rule to express the pattern.  Each success is rewarded with a U-Boat placemark file with a consecutive message and puzzle to solve.

The U-Boat Hunt would lend itself best as a daily problem for several weeks.  There are 16 U-boats to find and the clues are supplied via the teacher in succession on Google Earth kmz files.  These placemark files will need to be distributed to students by email or uploaded from a teacher’s web page.  IMPORTANT: Don’t give the entire folder to students until the end!

This activity is based on the Nova lesson: Decoding Nazi Secrets.  In this version, the students are given a simple cipher message from President Roosevelt to solve, followed by a complex cipher message from Fleet Admiral Ernest King.  It is possible to do the activity without the cipher messages – simply provide students with the translated versions included.

The information within the lesson is based on historic events from including the U-boat names and locations.  Placemark files include links to other sites with information on each particular U-boat.  As a Project Based Learning exercise, the teacher’s main role is that of a facilitator.  Some students will need assistance in finding some of the patterns but the goal is for them to make these discoveries on their own.

Cross-curricular study could involve the Social Studies and English teachers.  The students could be asked to make a presentation on one of the U-boats, the Enigma code, or another WWII topic.  Writing assignments could ask students to imagine themselves on a submarine or in a convoy of ships crossing the Atlantic.

Helpful links:


  • Use inductive reasoning to recognize patterns in number sequences
  • Write rules to express number patterns
  • Chart positions by latitude and longitude
  • Decipher and translate cipher and coded messages

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Algebra & Pre-Algebra
Middle School, Educator

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