Review by Christie Thomas, Common Sense Education | Updated December 2013

Whale FM

Kids match sound bites of whale talk on basic, crowdsourced site

Subjects & skills
Skills
  • Critical Thinking

Subjects
  • Science
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
6-12
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (1 Review)

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Pros: Kids love whales and authentic tasks; use both to connect them with this real, citizen science project.

Cons: Making a match can sometimes challenge or frustrate; kids may feel uneasy as the site doesn't offer feedback.

Bottom Line: Though limited in scope, it's a fun and genuine way to plug kids into the real world of scientific data analysis.

High school students can likely use Whale FM without teacher instruction, and middle school kids may only need a brief guide. Kids can access the site for a few minutes at the beginning or end of a class, during transition times, or when finishing tasks early.

Teachers can use the site more integrally when studying marine ecosystems (or humans' impact on them), when learning about communication among living things, or when making connections between physical (sound) and life sciences. The site is best used as one of many tools to improve and clarify your students’ concept of what real science entails. Interesting related conversations may build around the sheer amount of data collected in projects like this, the limitations of computer analysis, and the need for human input as we try to understand our world.

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Whale FM is a crowdsourced site wherein volunteers listen to sound bites from pilot and killer whales (both actually dolphins), and match them to similar clips. User efforts help scientists discover more about the marine mammals’ communication.

An interactive tutorial quickly and clearly provides directions. Users listen to a recorded sound and view its spectrogram (a visual representation of the sound) at the center of the screen. Then, participants search for a match among computer-generated choices. Possibilities can be deleted or selected until a match is found. That’s it! If there isn't a good match -- and this does happen -- the sound bite can be skipped for another. Participants don’t need an account, but logging in allows you to track matches or follow a particular animal. Links in the site's “About” section provide additional information about the animals and project.

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Whale FM can be surprisingly captivating; the thrill of finding a match will motivate kids -- and adults -- to return again and again. It’s easy to work for just a few minutes at a time. This isn't a simulation -- it's an authentic opportunity for students to participate in real scientific data analysis and research.

That said, it would be great if the site could provide a few practice rounds for newbies. Although students won’t know if their “real” answers are “right,” a little reassurance that they're going about the task correctly could buoy confidence. Teachers and students might also want to know more about how their input is being used -- concerns about making mistakes could be dispelled. The site could also expand links to other resources, like other citizen science projects, sites on careers in science and research, and more information about the animals. 

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Contributing to real scientific endeavors takes just minutes. Matching brief clips of whale conversations, kids can help researchers analyze data. Marine mammal lovers will be hooked, but more extensions could better engage others.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

There isn't a lot here: a bit about whales (technically dolphins), and some audio matching practice. Still, it's a good opportunity to help kids understand the world of scientific research by having them participate in it. 

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

How-to directions are clear; you'll quickly know what the scientists want you to do. But without practice runs or feedback, kids may be left uncomfortably wondering if their matches are “right.”


Common Sense Reviewer
Christie Thomas Classroom teacher

Teacher Reviews

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Featured review by
Steve T. , Technology coordinator
Technology coordinator
Students As Whale Song Scientists

Many students, inspired by films such as the Free Willy series, Whale Rider, and Big Miracle are fascinated by whales and the beautiful, eerie clicks, whistles, and other sounds whales, porpoises, and dolphins use to communicate with one another.

WhalesFM could serve as a the basis for at least several lessons within an oceanography unit and.or as part of a science project for individual students or small teams. Some students with particularly acute hearing and an ear for languages might find that they can really shine in such a project.

The spectrogram offers another way for students to analyze sounds by looking at their wave forms. Demonstrating this connection by having students use their computer’s built-in microphone and a recording program (such as the free, open-source Audacity) can provide students with a basic understanding of how their own voice generates acoustic waves that can be measured.

My main concern with the WhaleFM website is that directions on the site are rather sparse. Teachers will need to spend time with the interface ahead of time (or assign some savvy students figure it out for you!) I did not find a lot of support materials for this project on the Zooniverse website or its associated blog.

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