Dr Michele Thums and her team have studied the behaviour of whales in Pender Bay in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Humpback whales migrate northwards from Antarctica along the WA coast to the Kimberley, where they breed. The data collected as part of this project attempted to identify crucial habitats for the whales, including breeding and feeding grounds. For this project, we are considering just one of the datasets from the study, which consists of observations of humpback whales in Pender Bay from 2009–12.
Observers stand at an observation point on the shore of Pender Bay in groups of usually 2–4 people, and record the whales they can see during 5-minute sweeps of the bay every 20 minutes. The observations typically happen during whale season – roughly from June to November.
The observations haven't been completely consistent. Sometimes there are more observers. Observations can be more or less frequent – sometimes they start in June, sometimes in July. sometimes they finish in October, sometimes in November. Sometimes observers recorded environmental conditions such as temperature and wind direction. Sometimes they didn't.
The lesson follows an inquiry process where students use the dataset to answer relevant questions about the whale population. They consider what other data they would need in order to effectively examine the impact on humpback whales of sonar activity and noise from development.
This lesson was created and developed in partnership with Pawsey Supercomputing Centre and Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) Kimberley Marine Research Program.
Use a relevant hook to motivate students to discover more about humpback whales.
Research has shown that girls are interested in careers that have a positive social impact. This topic shines a spotlight on a contemporary issue that requires a balance of social, ethical, economic, and conservation perspectives.
Research has shown that girls value interaction and collaboration. Promote collaboration and recognition of the varied skills within the team, ensuring that all students are given the opportunity to manipulate the data set.
Use relevant video and text resources to provide a context for the way in which scientists (male and female) collect data to be used in conservation-related decisions. Feature the work of Michele Thums in this project. Use the video: Michele Thums ABC interview: humpback whales in Pender Bay.
Use Michele Thums’ career profile to discuss her career and use as a role model to inspire students to consider a STEM career.
Research has shown that when girls are exposed to positive STEM role models, their interest increases, along with an improved self-concept related to STEM fields. When showing scientists in action and use of technology, provide a balanced representation of males and females.
Girls often have a poor self-concept as mathematicians, believing commonly-held stereotypes that boys are naturally better than girls at maths. If you observe a number of girls showing reluctance or a lack of confidence with using spreadsheets, consider offering an additional session to practice and improve their skills. Support a growth mindset by praising their effort, strategies and behaviours.
This inquiry provides an opportunity to consider the issues of scientific data collection in the marine environment, and to extend scientific understanding by designing new experiments to fill gaps in existing data and knowledge.
Explain that in many scientific endeavours the data collected is a proxy for the data we really want. In this case, we have data that counts the observed number of whales but not the actual number of whales in the bay. The latter is, of course, almost impossible to count with complete accuracy. It’s also impossible to have people observing all day and night. So we try to approximate numbers in the bay by observing for short periods of time and extrapolating.
Point out that there are 7203 rows and 42 columns of data, which is really difficult to make sense of at first glance. Using the slide deck, the students will work through the question: How do we understand the data?
Discuss the mindset needed to investigate large datasets. Integral to the mindset is being organised and logical. Ensure that students first duplicate the sheet in their spreadsheet file, and save a new copy of the data, so the original remains untouched. Rename one sheet ‘original’, and one ‘copy’. Work in the copy sheet, not the original. This ensures that students can always go back to the untouched data. This is good practice when doing data analysis – never edit your original dataset!
For those that require assistance, help them start by working across the columns and looking at all of the titles. Categorise the titles into groups. For example, we have details about:
Which groups of information are going to be most useful to determine whether Pender Bay is an important whale habitat?
Reiterate that, ‘We want to know whether whale numbers are changing’. Help students through this process if needed.
Start by sorting the data by the total number of whales. When were the most whales observed? Insert a bar chart of the total whales. What extra information do you need to add to the graph in order to determine when the most whales were observed? The top 49 entries for most whales observed were all August 2009, but how different are the numbers for other years? What might be the easiest way to find that out?
Highlight the ‘Total number of whales’ column and insert a chart of that data. It should look like this:
Image: Bar chart of total number of whales observed over time
Discuss as a class what information you need to add in order to be able to identify the months when there are more whales. Add the month column as the X-axis of the graph. Make sure you include axis labels and a graph title.
Image: Bar chart of total number of whales observed over time against month
Try graphing the number of adults and calves against the months. To do this, highlight all three columns using the ‘Ctrl’ or command key and insert chart. You may need to go into the chart settings and make the months the X-axis, and the adults and calves the Y-axis. Point out that numbers have decreased significantly since the first year of observations, but increased a little in the final year of recorded data.
Image: Bar chart of number of adults and calves sighted, by month
Note the sharp increase in numbers in the final year of data, in contrast to the slow rise in previous years. Discuss what happened here. Go back to the spreadsheet and note the year in which each month’s sightings began. How does this change your ability to compare the data from year to year?
Make separate sheets for each year and copy the data across. To do this, select the first row for the year by clicking on the row number, then hold down the shift key and scroll down to the last value for that year (there are over 1500 entries for each year so this will take a while!). Then hit control-C (or command-C on a mac). Calculate the average number of adults, calves and totals for each year. Do the same for each month. Use the average function. How has the number of whales changed over time?
Copy the averages into a new column in a new sheet, together with the years they relate to, and graph the changes. Does this make it easier to see how the numbers have changed? Is it easier to read as one graph or with separate graphs for adults, calves, and totals?
Not a lot is known about the response of humpback whales to sonar. What kind of experiments could you conduct to determine the impact of sonar activity in Pender Bay?
What are the ethical considerations of running that kind of experiment?
Research suggests that girls are motivated when they are given opportunities to approach projects their own way, exercising their personal preferences and creativity. Engaging with creative problem solving also encourages students to embrace failure as part of the learning process, building resilience.
Digital Technology focus
What can you compare from day to day without skewing your results?
(Hint: Some values to consider include average number of whales per sweep, average number of whales per day and maximum number of whales in one sweep in a day.)
Consider the Limitations of the data
Bear in mind that the number of whales observed is not the same as the number of whales present, so you won’t get absolute numbers.
Like many forms of data collection, the data you get (how many whales the observers saw each time they observed) is a proxy for the data you actually want (how many whales actually use the area).
Acquire data examines how we collect and access data from a variety of sources.
Students can generate data of various types through their own experiments and investigations.
Record data in a format that allows it to be easily accessed or obtained. Students can describe how the data they have acquired can be stored in different ways using different representations and/or software. It is important to select the most suitable representation.
Organise data explores the ways we order, sort and arrange data to assist us with interpretation in different contexts.
Use data and its characteristics, properties and patterns to form a conclusion or derive meaning from it. Students can work with data that requires some simple processing using software. This could be in the form of simple spreadsheet calculations or using data in code. They draw conclusions about the data as a result of this processing.
Humpback whales in Pender Bay: short video about the WAMSI study of humpback whale Distribution in the Kimberley
Humpback whale distribution: more information about the WAMSI humpback whale project
Marine Mammal Laboratory: NOAA information about baleen and other whales
Species Profile and Threats Database: Megaptera novaeangliae — Humpback Whale: scientific background about humpback whales
Graphing, and mean, median, mode:
Using the average formula:
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) 2016, Cross-curriculum priorities (especially Sustainability)
Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Whales, dolphins and sound
Australian Museum: Humpback Whale
Choi, C 2011, Amazing Navigation Skills Seen in Humpback Whales, Live Science (website)
Dolphin Communication Project 2019, ‘Do humpback whales echolocate?’
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 2012, ‘Understanding of hearing in baleen whales amplified: New information about how baleen whales use sound’, Science Daily 17 April 2012