Hands-on Activity: Riding the Gravity Wave

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A composite of stylized drawings of snow boarding, biking, bungee jumping, parachuting, unicycle juggling and rope swinging.
Students examine gravity in sports
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1983-2001.


Students write a biographical sketch of an artist or athlete who lives on the edge, riding the gravity wave, to better understand how these artists and athletes work with gravity and manage risk. Note: The literacy activities for the Mechanics unit are based on physical themes that have broad application to our experience in the world — concepts of rhythm, balance, spin, gravity, levity, inertia, momentum, friction, stress and tension.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Some engineers design sports equipment for athletes who are trying to defy gravity. When athletes propel themselves by their own power, they want low-weight but durable equipment. A world-class sprinter runs in specially-designed, super light sprinting spikes. Pro cyclists want the lightest, but still strong and rigid, bicycles as they climb and descend mountains. Engineer-designed sports equipment might include boards, sails, skis, shoes, bats, masks, ropes and safety straps, helmets, clothing or bicycles.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Familiarity with the concept of gravity

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Students apply skills in analysis, synthesis, evaluation and explanation to their writing and speaking.
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Understand how athletes must work with (and sometimes against) gravity

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object's motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Materials List

  • Paper and pencil or pen
  • Access to the Internet


What does it take to become a world-class athlete? Talent, obviously, but sometimes overlooked is the degree of drive and discipline required, which can make the difference between being a top achiever or an also-ran. This is true whether you are Michael Jordan or a star performer in Cirque du Soleil or the "extreme" athletes who compete in the Gravity Games (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_Games).

Speaking of gravity, what all these athletes have in common is the way they work with and sometimes against gravity, performing their unique forms of aerial ballet: Michael Jordan making an artful, air-bound slam dunk; gold-medalist free-style skier Eric Bergoust accomplishing the "helicopter" or "backscratcher" maneuver in the 2002 Winter Olympics; Isabelle Vaudelle and other artists performing the "Aerial Contortion in Silk" in Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam"; Tony Hawk finally executing the 900 on the twelfth attempt at the 1999 X Games.

Think of an athlete or movement artist who has a special gift for working with gravity. This may be a famous person or someone you know who possesses the talent, drive and discipline to become world-class. Athletes are performers as much as movement artists are athletes. Your assignment is to write a brief biographical sketch of this athlete, this "performer."


Kinesthesia: The sense that detects bodily position, weight or movement of the muscles, tendons and joints.

Orient: To align or position with respect to a point or system of reference; to become adjusted or aligned.

Vestibular system: System in the body that is responsible for maintaining balance, posture and the body's orientation in space. This system also regulates locomotion and other movements and keeps objects in visual focus as the body moves.


As we've learned, gravity isn't just a good idea, it's the law (a law of nature). So why has defying this law become such a popular sport? It used to be that if you wanted to see someone risk life and limb you had to wait until the circus came to town — the high-wire walker, trapeze artist, man-shot-out-of-a-cannon. Increasingly popular "new circus" troupes such as Cirque du Soleil leave out the animals and focus entirely on the arts of movement, playing with gravity in startling ways. And now, the circus has moved outdoors, as so-called extreme sports have multiplied — skateboarding, snowboarding, free-style motocross, free-style rock-climbing, free-style skiing, inline skating, extreme surfing, bungee-jumping, sky-surfing, wakeboarding. The list continues to grow. Daredevils now live next door.

Building upon the gravity concepts learned in this lesson (Mechanics unit, Lesson 2), in this activity, students write a biographical sketch of a person who defies gravity for fun, for art, for glory, for profit or for a combination of these motives. The object of writing the sketch is not just to answer the "who" and what but also the "how" and "why" of the gravity defiers.

Students approaching adolescence may already consider risk-taking forms of behavior to be glamorous. Extreme sports are certainly presented as such. This literacy activity can also be an opportunity to look behind the glamour. For a skeptical view of extreme sports — and some discussion points — see Dudes vs. Nature by Joyce Millman (http://www1.salon.com/weekly/extreme960603.html). An excerpt:

The extreme sportsters' attempts to change the proportions of a world in which people are increasingly powerless and small is not without poignance, though. This is the generation that grew up on Spielberg, video games and cyberspace — in their imaginations and egos, if not in actuality, anything is possible.

For all the hype, extreme sports are real sports, challenging mind and body in new and exciting ways. Extreme athletes are also like circus performers or performance artists who make a profession and an art of tuning their bodies to a fine edge of achievement. In writing the biographical sketch, students should be encouraged to consider just how such artists and athletes work both with and against gravity to perfect their edge-walking art.

As students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, they may begin to question why certain cultural forms and activities emerge and not take them at face value, looking beneath the glamour of the sport to the reality of the physical discipline that is required to become a world-class athlete, new circus performer or aerial dancer.

Note: In the literacy activity, Wow! That Captures It, for Mechanics unit, Lesson 6, students use the concept of "center of gravity" to write an action scene. The activity is relevant here because students write an action scene as an introductory story for the biographical sketch.


To prepare to write this sketch, learn as much as you can about how the body senses gravity. In addition to the five familiar senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell — you have a sense that allows you to tune into gravity. It is called kinesthesia or the kinesthetic sense, "the sense that detects bodily position, weight or movement of the muscles, tendons and joints." Athletes and movement artists are able to tune into this sense. They are especially gifted with what Howard Gardner, in his influential book Frames of Mind, calls kinesthetic intelligence.

Conduct some research. Think about how you experience movement. As an experiment, deliberately make yourself dizzy — be careful not to bump into anything — and pay close attention to the effect. Research how the vestibular system of your inner ear works to help you maintain your balance.

You have probably heard the expressions, "I have a gut instinct" or "I just feel it in my bones" as ways of describing intuition. Can you feel gravity in your bones and joints? How do you orient yourself in space? If you close your eyes or put on a blindfold or make the room totally dark, how do you know up is up and down is down? How do you "feel" your way in the dark?

Note: "Kinesthesia" is related to and sometimes distinguished from "proprioception," a more general sense of movement arising from sensory receptors distributed throughout the body, including the skin and internal organs. The kinesthetic sense is considered to be more localized in fibers within tendons, joints and muscle tissue, as well as in the vestibular system of the inner ear that governs balance. For the purposes of this exercise, it is only necessary to introduce students to the concept that they have a real "sixth sense" (actually, multiple senses working together) that enables them to sense the body's position in space in relation to the pull of gravity. The point is to help students become more aware of how they perceive movement in order to understand how an athlete or movement arts performer develops and perfects this sense.


If gravity is a law, the artists and athletes we have been talking about are some kind of law breakers. Or maybe they're escape artists? Have a look at M.C. Escher's famous lithograph, "Gravity." What is going on here?

A colorful drawing of a dodecahedron polyhedron with reptile-like arms, legs and heads coming out of holes in the 3D object.
This image appears to be a unique cage for reptiles. The system is created of a stellated dodecahedron. M.C .Escher's "Gravity," lithograph, 1952
Copyright © 2004 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission. www.mcescher.com.

Hint: The shape is a small stellated dodecahedron with perforations. In a sense, it is a dodecahedron that "pushes the envelope." The dodecahedron, one of the five Platonic solids, represents the universe.

What do you think Escher's "Gravity" represents? (Possible answer: The little reptiles are attempting to escape gravity.)


To write your biographical sketch, follow these guidelines, but not necessarily in this order. Action-writing, like extreme sports, tends to break the rules:

  • To capture your reader's attention, begin with a brief introductory story that describes the performer in action. Make your reader want to know more.
  • Provide evidence that the change in your performer's motion depends on the sum of the forces on your performer and the mass of your performer. In other words, make a list of all the forces that typical act on your performer while they perform. Then discuss how these affect their motion. Be sure to specifically include gravity.
  • Discuss the performer's background — youth, relevant education and training — as well as awards won and other achievements.
  • If the performer has made a profession of a sport or art, describe the career either chronologically or topically.
  • Describe what makes the performer unique, why they have a special understanding of how to work with gravity. If possible, interview the performer. Sometimes it can be difficult for them to explain their special magic. This is where the interviewer's skill comes in. Remember the "journalist's questions"!

Not surprisingly, sports writers are considered to be some of the best writers in journalism. They've learned to capture the essence of action. For more ideas, investigate the following examples:

Safety Issues

  • Safety precautions should be taken when students experiment with making themselves dizzy or if they try some of the sports to get a feel for the topic of their writing assignment.

Troubleshooting Tips

If the news article links are no longer available, just search for new ones using a search engine such as Google. Click on the "News" tab at http://www.google.com and type "extreme sports" or "aerial dance" or the name of your favorite performer or athlete.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Kinesthetic Experimentation: Students can experiment with orientation using a blindfold or by making themselves dizzy. Ask them to demonstrate their understanding of how the vestibular system works to help them keep their balance, and describe verbally how they experience the effects of gravity.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Graphic Concepts: In discussing Escher's symbolic representation of gravity, have students demonstrate their understanding of how the concept is graphically depicted and why the symbol of the stellated dodecahedron is used.

Post-Activity Assessment

Action and Descriptive Writing: Evaluate the writing assignments in terms of how well the students capture the action and feeling of the sport or art form, and what makes the performer unique and exceptional.

Discussion Questions: Ask the students, and discuss as a class:

  • What physical forces must the performers you wrote about understand in order to excel in their sport or art form? (Possible answers: Gravity, drag, thrust, weight, lift, acceleration, air resistance, center of mass, balance, stress and strain on materials, laws of motion, friction, rotational motion, tension and compression, etc.)
  • If the performer you wrote about uses any tools or equipment (such as rock climbing gear or a snowboard, bicycle, etc.), how does an engineer design the tools and equipment to be safe? (Answer: Discuss how an engineer uses his understanding of math and science, and how the human body works, to design and create new sports equipment that is both fun and safe. Safety is important to prevent injuries to athletes and others.)

Activity Extensions

Learn about how pilots and astronauts deal with the effects of zero gravity. Find out what it is like to ride the "Vomit Comet." Report your findings to the class.

Find out how the zero-gravity scenes for Apollo 13 were filmed and what the stars of the movie and the director thought about the experience. Report your findings to the class.

Write a sketch of what you think it would feel like to experience zero gravity or the opposite, the force of several "Gs" (G-force, an inertial force usually expressed in multiples of terrestrial gravity) that you would experience taking off in the shuttle, a fighter jet or whirling in a centrifuge (or some amusement park rides).

Activity Scaling

  • Some students may need to focus more on developing their own sense of how they experience gravity before attempting to write on the topic.
  • The Activity Extensions options are suitable for all levels.


Cirque due Soleil. Accessed January 26, 2005. (Creative and unusual dance company) http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/

Cycropia Aerial Dance. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://www.cycropia.org/

Gravity Games. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_Games

Hart, George W. Virtual Reality Polyhedra, The Encyclopedia of Polyhedra. The Polyhedra of M.C. Escher. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://www.georgehart.com/virtual-polyhedra/escher.html

McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. Biography Writer's Workshop. Scholastic Inc. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://teacher.scholastic.com/writewit/biograph/

Millman, Joyce. Dudes vs. Nature, Extreme Sports. SALON, Television, San Francisco, CA. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www1.salon.com/weekly/extreme960603.html

Momentum Machine, How ice skaters, divers and gymnasts get themselves spinning and twisting faster, Science Snacks. Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/

Pendulum Aerial Dance Theater. Accessed May 5, 2004: http://www.pendulumdancetheatre.org/

Roanoke Ballet Theater, Roanoke, VA. Accessed May 5, 2004: http://roanokeballet.org/

Skateboard Science, Exploratorium. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://www.exploratorium.edu/skateboarding/

Thomas, Molly. Aerial Dance Sweeps the Nation. USA Today. Accessed May 5, 2004. http://www.usatoday.com/life/2001-07-25-aerial-dance.htm


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 17, 2017