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Learning by Listening to Marine Mammal Sounds

Humpback whale photo courtesy of NOAA.

Humpback whale photo courtesy of NOAA.

Sept. 2018 -- A Sea Grant-funded project aims to make science accessible to visually impaired students. Carla Curran, professor of marine sciences at Savannah State University, and Laela Sayigh, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, worked with Kathy Patterson, the manager of WHOI’s Ocean Science Discovery Center, to develop a classroom activity and a museum exhibit that uses sound to teach kids about marine mammals.

“Marine mammals’ reliance on sound makes them a natural subject for a science lesson that targets students with visual impairments,” said Curran, whose interest has been to engage K-12 students in the sciences by sharing her research and the research of her collaborators.

The activity developed by the team gives teachers background on the importance of sound to cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises — and describes some of the threats to these animals. Cetaceans rely on sound to communicate in dark, sometimes murky waters and over long distances. Some species also use sound to navigate and find food using echolocation.

“Given that reliance on sound, marine mammals are impacted by noise in the ocean — particularly that generated by human activity, such as shipping traffic, oil exploration, and military operations,” says Sayigh, who has been researching cetacean sound for 32 years. “In this sense, the lesson explains how noise should be considered a type of pollution like more familiar types, such as trash and chemical runoffs.”

The focus of the classroom activity is a sound-matching game that challenges students to identify animals based on the sounds they make. Using the large archive of recordings of marine mammal vocalizations developed at the WHOI Marine Mammal Center and available at, the activity provides sound clips of vocalizations made by 10 different species of cetaceans. First students are introduced to sounds of several whales and dolphins, and the teacher leads them in a discussion about how the sounds vary and why an animal’s sound might be low or high or consist of clicks or upsweeps. Plastic models of the animals help students differentiate between some of the different species. After learning about the animals and listening to their vocalizations, students are given a listening quiz to try to match the sounds they heard with the animals they learned about. The quiz can be made more challenging for higher grade levels or students with greater abilities by playing only a short sound bite or by playing a different type of vocalization from some of the animals they learned about.

“We know hands-on, experiential learning is important in getting students interested in the environment,” says

Perkins students touching a piece of baleen during a visit to WHOI.

Perkins students exploring a piece of baleen during a visit to WHOI.

Curran. “We think teaching about whales and dolphins is a great way to get students to think about the marine environment and the ways humans interact with and impact that environment.”

The research team assembled a PowerPoint presentation with embedded sounds, to give teachers the tools they need to lead students through the activity. The team tested the activity with students and teachers from the Perkins School for the Blind as well as with students who were not visually impaired.

“Students enjoyed listening to the sounds and were very good at matching sounds to the correct species during the quiz. In fact, they were often better than adult audiences,” says Curran. “Students were able to describe sounds using their own experiences and often related sounds to musical instruments, creaking objects like doors, or bodily functions, generating a lot of laughter.”

The research team plans to publish this collaboration as a classroom activity in an educational journal. They have already established kiosk displays at WHOI’s Ocean Science Discovery Center and the New Bedford Whaling Museum and hope to incorporate recent technological advances used in cetacean research as an enhancement to their display. The hope is that students will be further motivated to pursue a career in science or engineering by having hands-on access to this technology.

Published September 2018.