Rethinking STEAM for the Anthropocene

By Kathleen Kesson

One of the primary objectives of the Gurukula system of education is to strive incessantly towards a better understanding of the created world and to fully grasp the raison d’être of life forces that make up our colorful mysterious world. Thus, the scientific perspective in Gurukula education is an endeavor to help students better understand the mysteries of creation, develop a rationalistic mentality and live with “awakened consciousness.” ~ Ac (Dr.) Shambushivananda, 2018, p. 53

In the early part of the 21st century, a new approach to teaching science emerged in the United States, due largely to the recognition that the country was falling behind other nations in its science and mathematics test scores. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) was the acronym suggested by the National Science Foundation for new science standards for K-12 students that would feature a more integrated pedagogy oriented towards developing analytic thinking, problem-solving, and science competencies. As has generally been the case with revised standards in science and mathematics, the fundamental issue at stake is economic dominance; expertise in research, discovery, and innovation is thought to be the basis of a workforce that can out-compete those of other countries and ensure that the United States be at the top of the economic ladder.

STEAM (the inclusion of Arts in the acronym) was an afterthought. Though it is meant to foster increased attention to an integrated curriculum, the main focus is on appropriating the kind of creative and innovative thinking employed by artists in the service of more effective science and technology teaching and learning. Rethinking STEAM in the context of Neohumanist education, I have taken the liberty of replacing ENGINEERING with ETHICS in the acronym, in recognition of the reality that while the application of empirical science and precision mathematics has brought extraordinary achievements to the modern world, the misapplication of scientific discoveries in the context of a global economic system devoted to profit has brought us a set of interlocking crises that threaten not just the well-being of the bio-system, but the very continuation of life on the planet. Without the inclusion of ethical thinking and decision-making in the education of both citizens and scientists, the dangers to Planet Earth (climate catastrophe, pollution, species extinction, etc.) will continue unabated.

The first cohort of students in the certification program offered by the Neohumanist College of Asheville, under the auspices of Gurukula, have recently completed their final content course, NHE 119: Teaching Science, Technology, Ethics, Arts, and Math (STEAM), and are preparing for a summer graduation. We were fortunate to have many wonderful guest presenters in this class. Ruai Gregory shared her extensive experience in designing early childhood outdoor and indoor STEAM learning environments, Ellen Landeau presented many ideas to engage young children with mathematics through experiential inquiry, and Eric Jacobson shared the principles of science teaching that he presents to teachers at the Progressive School of Long Island, one of the longest running Neohumanist schools. His presentation taught students how to modify existing science curricula to bring them into alignment with Neohumanist ideals. The Big Ideas that he invokes to do this are Scale, Systemic Nature, Perspective, Connections, Perfection, Dogmawatch and Ethics. Please see his article in this issue, for details.

We were especially taken with one of Eric’s stories about a regular science curriculum unit in their school that happens around the holiday of Halloween. Instead of focusing on the scary qualities of bats, children study their unique ecological niche and learn about the importance of bats to a healthy ecosystem, as well as the extinction dangers they face. As a culminating activity, the children build bat houses and install them, as a service project for bats. We loved the idea of service to “more-than-human” creatures!

Rethinking STEAM for the Anthropocene.

It is probably no news to readers of this publication that due to human impacts on the environment related to energy use and other factors, we are shifting the world out of the Holocene period into a new geological era, often termed the Anthropocene (GR: ánthrōpos, “man, human” and EN: cene, “an epoch or geologic period”). The Holocene, the most recent Epoch of the Cenozoic Era, began well over 10,000 years ago, and has been characterized by relatively stable climate patterns that have enabled the flourishing of complex human cultures. Despite the consensus of the world community of scientists that we must reverse course if we are to survive and thrive into the future, the pace of mis-applied science and technology has not subsided: fossil fuel extraction continues unabated and oil and gas profits are higher than ever, and the poisoning of the environment continues, causing the extinction of between 24 to 150 species a day (Djoghlaf, 2007). On the near horizon is the cloning of human bodies, the engineering of fake food, widespread applications of artificial intelligence, and increasingly sophisticated weaponry, with little to no public input. More than ever, our young people need to understand the ethical and moral dimensions of these “innovations.” We definitely need to “rethink STEAM for the Anthropocene.”

To conclude, we want to share here some principles for STEAM teaching that we explored in the content of the course, principles that we believe can revitalize the teaching of science and provide young people with the tools they need to survive and thrive in these volatile times:

  • Science and its related disciplines need to be thought of as compelling stories, rather than dry facts.
  • Western science needs to be taught with an understanding of its limits as well as its powers.
  • The integration of the intangibles – ethics, values, aesthetics, meaning, purpose, and spirituality – is an important consideration in STEAM teaching.
  • Neohumanist education acknowledges the crucial role of place – educating the young child about the land, the water, the creatures, and the culture in which they live before they are expected to deal with abstractions.
  • The importance of immersion in the sensory world, outside and inside; ensuring that genuine experience is at the core of all science learning.
  • Implementation of “science talks” (a protocol for mindful listening to children’s questions about the world, how they think, how they experience the world, and the explanations they have about phenomena) at every stage of a new unit of study: the initiation of a topic, the exploration of a topic, and the summary stage).
  • The provision of consistent opportunities for children to observe phenomena, plan experiments, and explore new ideas.
  • Of vital importance is the incorporation of ethical thinking across the science curriculum through discussion, role play, and debate.
  • The incorporation of multiple cultural perspectives into every subject (ex: how Indigenous people understand plant medicine vs. Western allopathic medicine).
  • The arts need to be seamlessly integrated in STEAM in terms of:
    • their experimental use (ex: architectural models to test ideas about structure);
    • their capacity to nurture the imagination (ex: visualizing traveling wind currents on a magic carpet);
    • their capacity to highlight details (ex: botanical drawing);
    • their capacity to clarify concepts (ex: colorful and vivid mind maps of phenomena studied);
    • the creative expression of ideas (ex: dancing the theory of relativity);
    • their role in “making special” the ordinary events and processes of life (ex: creating and celebrating seasonal festivals and ceremonies)

A new story for humanity.

Humanity’s great creation stories come to us from the realm of mythos — an ancient and dreamy land of story and legend, of myth and magic. We have perhaps mistakenly separated mythos and logos (from the Greek: “word” or “reason”), however. The great discovery of contemporary science “is that the universe is not simply a place, but a story — a story in which we are immersed, to which we belong, and out of which we arose” (Swimme & Tucker, 2011, p. 2). Swimme and his colleagues who consider themselves “postmodern cosmologists” (Griffin, 1988), articulate a new story emerging from science itself, drawn from the descriptions of matter generated by quantum physics, from the power of cosmological observations enabled by advanced telescopes, and from the intricacies of the plant world revealed by the electron microscope and time lapse photography. Yet, even the postmodern cosmologists take us only to the infinitesimal dot, the nucleus of the Big Bang, and hesitate to step into the chasm of First Causes – understandably so, as the notion of an initial creative force can be a slippery slope into dogma and doctrine. It is enough, we must assume, to acknowledge our common source in the “great flaring forth of light and matter” (Swimme & Tucker, 2011, p. 5) from which all life forms eventually emerged.

In the mythic Tantric Cycle of Creation (Brahmacakra) Pure Consciousness exists in a state of equilibrium, containing within it an infinite, immanent creative power. When the creative force manifests itself in a “great flaring forth of light and matter,” the cosmic cycle is initiated, and everything – “galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, bacteria, plants, animals, and human beings” (Ratnesh, 1989, p. 21) – evolves and exists in various states of vibrational frequency as a thought projection of the Cosmic Mind. Not only does this particular mythos embrace the modern evolutionary synthesis, it is consistent with emergent explanations of the universe as a self-organizing, intelligent system (or system of systems). A key element of Brahmacakra is the cyclical evolution of Mind, the notion that there is a “return of individual minds to that same state of Pure Consciousness after further evolutionary development of those individual minds” (Ibid.). The disciplines of Yoga, (meaning, in Sanskrit: “to yoke”, or “union,” signifying the aim of uniting body, mind, and spirit), are dedicated to facilitating this process of evolution and involution.

The aim of teaching science and the related STEAM subjects in Neohumanist education is, as noted in the opening quotation, to gain a better understanding of the created world and to fully grasp the raison d’être of life forces that make up our colorful mysterious world. The raison d’être (literally the reason for being, or the purpose of life) is embedded in the Brahmacakra narrative – to grow and evolve towards an “awakened consciousness.” Reason and logic, the key cognitive tools of scientific knowledge (logos), need to be tempered by the cultivation of discernment, intuition, aesthetics, mythopoetics, and love — capacities that grow and flourish in an environment where inner knowing and the search for wisdom are fostered through contemplative practices, study, and intersubjective dialogue. An environment in which mythos and logos might finally be reunited in a new story – for a new human – for a new era – Neohumanism.


Djoghlaf, A. 2007. Speech to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Retrieved from
Griffin, D. (Ed.) (1988). The reenchantment of science. Albany, New York: The State University of New York Press.
Ratnesh, Ac. (1989). Microvita: The cosmic seeds of life. West Germany: Dharma Verlag.
Shambushivananda, Ac. (2018). Thoughts for a new era: A Neohumanist perspective. Ydrefors, Sweden: Gurukula Press.
Swimme, B.T. & Tucker, M.E. (2011). Journey of the universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.