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Project-Based Learning: Saving the Southern Resident Killer Whales

August 04, 2021

By employing the principles of project based learning, this unit empowers students to steer their own learning, to investigate
the issues that are most important to them, and to inspire their greater community in conservation and recovery.

News headlines about the Southern Resident killer whales are often bleak. When students are flooded with media coverage of environmental destruction, they can experience chronic anxiety. So, how can we inspire young people to become environmental stewards when they are inheriting seemingly insurmountable problems—like saving a critically-endangered marine mammal from extinction?

Project-based learning (PBL) is one evidence-based tool that can advance student achievement and empower student-led action. Rather than passively learning, PBL empowers students to coach, facilitate, and co-learn. PBL has also demonstrated that students learn best when they experience and solve real-world problems. Southern Resident conservation and recovery are natural topics for PBL.

This standards-based unit helps students understand the:

  • Cultural, economic, and ecological importance of Southern Residents
  • Connections between individual actions and watershed health
  • Limitations and benefits to different types of action
  • Unique power of youth voice and passion for driving change

The unit contains nine fully-planned activities that can be used as stand-alone activities or as a complete series. The activities can be scaled to different timelines and students’ interests. The unit provides many opportunities for students to create public products and share their learning beyond the classroom. The final activity provides scaffolding for a student-led stewardship project that embraces students’ talents and interests.



Complete Unit
Download the complete Project-Based Learning Unit.

Front Matter
Download the Scope and Sequence, Table of Contents, and Background Information about the Southern Residents.

1. Making Connections

After watching a media-rich slideshow featuring sounds, images, and video clips related to the Southern Residents and their environment, students draw connections to discover what they will be learning about throughout this unit. Students then brainstorm what they need to know in order to answer the unit’s driving question: How can we make a difference for the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales?

2. Click, Whistle, Call

Students describe the various sounds in their neighborhood and how noise pollution affects them personally. After learning how Southern Residents communicate, students participate in a simulation to experience how Southern Residents are being disturbed by human activities.

3. Ripple Effects

During a graphics-heavy slide show, students learn about the ripple effects of various plant and animal extinctions around the world. Afterward, a jigsaw activity guides students through the potential cultural, economic, and environmental effects of Southern Resident decline and extinction.

4. Threats and Solutions

The activity opens with a quick brainstorm about what animals need to survive. Students then conduct scaffolded research to dive deeper into the major threats facing the Southern Residents: starvation, contamination, and vessel noise and then research potential solutions to these threats. During a reflection, students identify the potential barriers and side benefits of implementing these solutions.

5. Community Mapping

After making observations about different community characteristics, students brainstorm a list of community features that might benefit or harm the Southern Residents. In small groups, students create a neighborhood map and identify local issues that might affect the Southern Residents. The class then identifies ways that the schoolyard and/or community can be improved to benefit the Southern Residents, their prey, and their habitat.

6. Who is Responsible?

This activity opens with a general poll about responsibility for sociopolitical issues. Afterward, students discuss who should be responsible (i.e., governments, industries, communities, individuals) for the threats facing the Southern Residents. The activity helps students understand that a single entity alone cannot solve these issues—it will take all of us working together to save them. The activity wraps up with a discussion around the limitations and benefits to different types of action (i.e., individual, collective, governmental).

7. Task Force

Students take on the perspective of various resource managers (e.g., tribes and local government agencies) and stakeholders (e.g., fishers, tour boat operators, etc.) to evaluate measures designed to save the Southern Residents. During a mock meeting, groups weigh the pros and cons of each measure and decide whether or not their group would support it. Groups are then faced with a budget crisis and must decide how they would reprioritize each measure.

8. Yes, We Can!

A series of short case studies highlight how human passion and ingenuity can overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. Students then complete a skills and interests assessment to determine how they can use their talents and interests to help the Southern Residents.

9. Taking Action

Students work in small groups to design an action project for the Southern Residents that demonstrates their learning and supports their personal interests and talents. Projects can be scaled to your timeline and students’ interests.

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on 01/29/2024