The tail of a whale: A real-world problem for the maths classroom

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Woolcott, G 2018, 'The tail of a whale: A real-world problem for the maths classroom', Australian Mathematics Teacher, vol. 74, no. 3, pp. 3-13.

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Every year, humpback whales move up and down the east coast of Australia from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to their breeding grounds in tropical waters of eastern Australia, near Hervey Bay in Queensland. Peta Beeman, a research student at Southern Cross University (SCU), is recording the patterns of whale flukes, the powerful swimming fin or tail of a whale. (Figure 1 shows a breaching humpback whale.) The pattern of each fluke is distinctive for each whale and, when people send images to Peta, she is able to process them using pattern recognition software called Fluke Matcher. This allows Peta and her team to recognise where each whale is at a particular time.
In 2014 SCU initiated a team project that developed resources for teachers and school students designed to involve them in real-world investigations being undertaken by some of our scientists. Peta worked with a team of university educators and local teachers to develop a five-lesson instructional sequence built around fluke identification as a way of resolving the question: “How fast do humpback whales travel up the east coast of Australia?” The idea was for students to go through similar processes to a scientist who was trying to answer this question, to see how they would respond to being involved in a real-world scientific inquiry.

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