No Gravity

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I’ve often found it both fun and useful to give students a problem for which there are no wrong answers. It just lets them wander a bit to explore ideas and see how one concept might lead to another.

This is something I particularly like to do on the opening day of class. An exercise like this can be a fun icebreaker and can set the tone for the rest of a course: this is a class where you need to be creative, explore ideas, share ideas that might be a little silly at times, and engage in group problem solving.

I was once being observed by faculty peers for an annual review when I gave this exercise to students. The two faculty members ended up getting into an in-depth discussion of whether dresses could be modified to remain a feasible apparel choice.

One of my favorite ways to do this comes from A Whack on the Side of the Head, which I pose to students as: Imagine a world in which there is no gravity for one minute each day. What would the room we’re in look like? What would campus and Austin look like? What would humans look like?

Students go in all kinds of directions. Maybe humans would have tails or suction cups on their feet to prevent us from flying off when there is no gravity. Cars would all have to operate with magnets or like rollercoasters with tracks. Rooms might have to be padded. And so on.

(I was once being observed by faculty peers for an annual review when I gave this exercise to students. The two faculty members ended up getting into an in-depth discussion of whether dresses could be modified to remain a feasible apparel choice.)

I wander around the classroom while the students are working in small groups on the question. They often have questions – do we just float during that minute? Or do we start shooting up toward the sky? – questions for which I have no answers. They can interpret the question however they want, which gives them even more room to play with ideas.

One of my favorite moments with this exercise came in a UGS signature course that included mostly undergraduate freshmen in their first semester – and three seniors who were taking the class as part of their requirements to graduate. There was the potential for an unusual dynamic. When the students were sharing ideas, one of the freshmen said “Our team had another idea that was really smart!” She looked expectantly at the senior sitting next to her, who clearly didn’t want to share his idea with the class. She was not deterred. “Well, his idea was that there would be someone kind of like a weatherman, but for this gravity thing. It’d be part of the nightly news: Tomorrow we think the minute of no gravity will be at 10:23. And even if that person isn’t right, the job would still exist – people predicting the weather aren’t always right, either.” The whole class thought this was really clever and accurate. I had been doing this exercise for years and never heard this answer. I complimented both her for sharing and him for clearly being the one who came up with it, even if he didn’t want to share. She was quite proud, but most importantly (to me), I could see the change with that senior. He perked up and over the opening weeks of the semester came out of his shell and engaged. The class ended up being a great community and learning environment, and I attribute a lot of it to that interaction on the first day.

This exercise is always fun and, once they get into it, students invariably enjoy the flexibility of discussing a topic in which there really aren’t any wrong answers. It helps them open up to sharing their ideas in general, which helps with any class.


Michael Mackert photoMichael Mackert
Associate Professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations
Dr. Mackert’s current research focuses primarily on the strategies that can be used in traditional and new digital media to provide effective health communication to low health literate audiences. Of particular interest are approaches that go beyond “clear and simple” messages which can create increased engagement which will translate to improved health behavior and outcomes over time.

Image by Felix Russell-Saw on

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Phebe Martin and the College Experience

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the past few years we’ve used the term “college experience” with increasing frequency, this to distinguish it from high school, work, on line, vacation or other “experience.” We value it. We promote it. Yet in reading casually I haven’t really nailed down its meaning.  This leaves me to develop a definition that fits my own teaching practice. Specifically, I’ve been experimenting with setting stages for students to “do” history.

Here’s my most recent example. Late last term Victoria Davis, Humanities Media Project Program Coordinator, and Ben Wright, Assistant Director for Communications at the Briscoe Center for American History, brought to my attention a small set of tattered documents recently found in the Briscoe’s Natchez Trace Collection, an important archival trove of early 19th century papers from the Lower Mississippi Valley. The papers involved the court case of Phebe Martin. Martin, a free woman of color, born near the end of the American Revolution, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Taken into the newly created Mississippi Territory, she managed to get her case before a court, where a jury issued a document setting her free.

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Tilting the Classroom: On Lecturing and Student Engagement

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Not long ago, I encountered the term “flipping” to describe the pedagogic strategy whereby students are asked to engage in the active problem-solving in class that is normally reserved for time outside of lecture. The idea of flipping made me think about the dynamics of my own classroom and the strategies I employ to try to build and maintain student engagement during lectures. I teach film analysis in the English Department, and the skills I aim to impart to my students are those of visual close reading. It’s a substantial transformation that I ask of my students, who may have significant exposure to film in their daily lives but whose ability to articulate an interpretation of visual narratives is often limited to their own impressionistic responses. I aim to equip my students with the formal vocabulary and interpretive tools necessary to break filmic images into their component parts and to examine the relationship between those parts: to think about how images are constructed and arranged, the relationships built between visual sequences, the manner in which these are deployed to describe narrative action and simultaneously shape our reactions. In short, I want my students to learn to stop watching films and instead start reading them.

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Move Fast and Break Things: What I learned in Chemistry Prepared Me for Facebook

Reading Time: 2 minutes

When the Faculty Innovation Center celebrated its Grand Opening in the December, UT alumna Christina Raggio shared her reflections on how her experiences at UT prepared her for what she’s doing now.

What is a Chemistry major doing at a Global Tech company? Trying to answer this question has made me wonder about the unique value proposition of my UT Chemistry degree. My lack of tech experience intimidated me at first, but it forced me to look internally: “What has my UT education and undergrad experiences provided me to prepare me for this opportunity? What am I uniquely qualified to do at this company?”

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The Sea in Single Drops: Connecting with Students Using Classroom Response Systems

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Clickers.” If you’re not already using them, you might have heard about them from colleagues or students. Or you might know them by product names like iClicker—which uses its own handheld device—or web-based products like Squarecap, Poll Everywhere, and Top Hat that can be used on any mobile device. They all belong to a type of technology known as “classroom response system” (CRS). This type of technology has been used at UT since the early 2000s, and continue to grow in popularity. In fact, many instructors that we work with in the FIC are finding the CRS to be an increasingly necessary tool for creating meaningful learning experiences for their students.

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