Saving Whales with Computational Thinking

Want to teach your students how to save whales using Computational Thinking? Researchers and educators have teamed up to share powerful case studies for the classroom

Whale swimming in the water with a tear on the side of its body.
This photograph shows a humpback whale that has been injured by a ship strike. A visiting scientist from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is using STEM and computational thinking in her work to address this conservation challenge.  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of mortality for large whales. When whales and boats are in the same place at the same time, whales can be struck by boats resulting in injury or mortality. That happened to a female humpback whale off the coast of San Francisco in August 2022. 

Driven by a desire to address the pressing issue of ship strikes on whales, students in a third-grade classroom in Athens City, Alabama engage in activities to better understand the problem of whales being hit by boats and work to develop solutions. They organize and sort real data of whale sightings to understand when and where whales are at different times of the year. They use a digital model developed with locations of whales and data on ship traffic to test possible solutions. These experiences are part of a unit developed by the Smithsonian Science Education Center and funded from the U.S. Department of Defense Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) office to give students an opportunity to use STEM and computational thinking to address a real-world conservation issue. Student activities in the Protecting Whales unit are modeled after the work of Smithsonian Environmental Research Center Visiting Scientist, Sarah Mallette, who uses STEM and computational thinking in her own work to address the problem of whales getting hit by ships. Learn more about this specific unit as well as how to integrate STEM and computational thinking into your classroom at the Smithsonian National Education Summit session, “Teach Your Students How to Save Whales with Computational Thinking.”

Why Computational Thinking?

As our society faces increasingly complex problems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, it is more important than ever that the next generation is equipped with the skills to develop and implement solutions. Computational thinking includes breaking down complex problems into smaller problems, developing a sequence of steps to solve a problem, reducing complexity of a problem, and determining if a computer can be used to efficiently solve a problem. Computational thinking emerged from the field of computer science, but it is increasingly viewed as a fundamental approach to problem-solving, not just for computer scientists, but for everyone. It is equally as important for students to learn as reading, writing, and mathematics.

Currently, many students are not explicitly exposed to computational thinking as part of their K-12 education unless they choose to take a computer science elective in secondary school. Students who don’t know what computational thinking is or who do not have the opportunity to see the value of using computational thinking to solve real-world problems may not choose to take a class. By integrating computational thinking with third grade STEM and literacy standards, the Protecting Whales unit provides an opportunity for all third-grade students who use it to gain exposure to computational thinking and apply these skills to develop solutions to a real-world problem.

Integrating STEM and Computational Thinking

Protecting Whales was developed for third grade students and was designed to allow students to practice problem solving using real data on whale movement and ship traffic to consider ways to reduce collisions which result in death and injury to whales. This work is modeled after Marine Scientist, Sarah Mallette’s research, which focuses on understanding whale movement. Students play a hands-on game to model a whale’s migration from their tropical calving grounds to their cool, nutrient rich feeding areas. Students also learn environmental factors that impact whale mortality. Students sort photographs of whales to better understand where whales are at different times of the year. Students then use whale and ship traffic data to develop models to help them better understand the problem of whales getting hit by ships. These practices of developing and using models and sorting and analyzing data are integral to science as well as computational thinking.

Scientists can track humpback whale movement by photographing the fluke, or tail, which has unique coloration, scars, and markings allowing researchers to identify individuals, similar to a human fingerprint, along their migration. Deana Glenz

Teachers, especially elementary teachers, are already pressed for time as they try to meet language arts, math, science, and social studies standards within the school year. The Protecting Whales unit was developed to integrate computational thinking with both the science and literacy standards that third grade teachers already need to teach.

Inspired by Authentic Research

Sarah Mallette studies whale movement by documenting whales from boats and planes to understand where whales are located at different times of the year. Photo-ID is one of the tools researchers use to track whale movement to understand the habitat they use. Information gained using Photo-ID also contributes to our understanding of how whales use areas that are also frequented by boats which pose risk for injury and mortality. In the Protecting Whales unit, students use the same Photo-ID research technique as Mallette to track whale movement in high-density shipping areas to better understand the risk that this traffic poses for whales.

Sarah Mallette collects whale data by taking geographic positions and photographs of whales from boats and airplanes. The above photograph is of Sarah conducting a boat survey for Arabian Sea humpback whales off of the coast of Oman. Courtesy of Sarah Mallette

High-Touch to High-Tech Approach to Computational Thinking

Throughout the Protecting Whales unit, students engage in hands-on, high-touch computational thinking activities that do not involve the use of computers. However, as the unit progresses, students are introduced to a high-tech computational approach. Here students are using automation, which is using a computer to more efficiently solve a problem. They learn how they can visualize more data using a computer model of the whale and ship data called Whale Protection Corps. Students use this simulation to test three possible solutions to the problem of whales getting hit by ships: (1) designating areas where ships cannot go, (2) creating areas where ships need to travel at reduced speeds, and (3) implementing a system of real-time reporting of whale-sightings Students evaluate the effectiveness of each solution by considering the number of whales saved, the amount of goods delivered, and the amount of resources spent. Teachers found this real-world approach valuable. One teacher commented, “I love how the simulation does not only focus on saving the whales. The students also have to deliver the cheese [goods] and consider the cost.” Another teacher commented, “It really opened their eyes to what a problem this truly is because you can’t just shut down ship traffic [like they originally wanted].”

Students can choose where to put No-go Zones and Slow Zones and how many resources to allocate to whale reporting through the Whale Protection Corps simulation. Smithsonian Science Education Center

Protecting Whales is one of two freely available units in the Smithsonian Science for Computational Thinking series. Both units integrate computational thinking with STEM and literacy through a problem-driven approach.

Editor's Note: Join the authors at the Smithsonian's National Education Summit on July 18-20, 2023, where they will present this ongoing research and supporting classroom materials on Thursday, July 20 at 12:00 p.m., EDT. The session will be livestreamed, recorded, and archived. More information about the session is available here: