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A Systems Activity about Our Universe

To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.

Originally appears in the Winter 2018 issue.

Children want to understand their world. Since this is the case, it is important that we do our best to offer them truthful, beautiful, and energizing information. After all, our world is a marvelous symphony of life — if only we can appreciate it! Systems theory is one of contemporary science’s best tools for translating the buzzing, burgeoning noise of empirical facts into lovely, moving melodies; for transforming data into understandable concepts. This is particularly true when systems theory is presented within an evolutionary, cosmological perspective. The activity that we’re offering here is a direct and visual way for you to introduce your students to the “nested levels” feature of systems though. Besides fostering “both/and” thinking and thereby helping youngsters move beyond concrete literalism, this little diagram prompts them to review and order many of the principle scales of organization and some of the relationships that characterize physical reality. The actual project, including instructions for students, appears on the opposite page.

Actually working with an image/schema such as this one allows young people to better comprehend and unify their expanding trove of knowledge. This, in turn, can facilitate their ongoing quest for wisdom and meaningful involvement. It helps prevent them from feeling too overwhelmed or discouraged by all the new data that they’re trying to assimilate. As Mathew Arnold stated so concisely in his acclaimed essay “Literature and Science,” 1882:
“Following our instinct for intellect and knowledge, we acquire pieces of knowledge; and presently in the generality of men [humanity], there arises the desire to relate these pieces of knowledge to our sense for conduct, to our sense for beauty — and there is weariness and dissatisfaction if the desire is balked… [because in striving to fulfill this integrative psychological tendency] we are following the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.” (Arnold, 369-370).
Or, as Alfred North Whitehead advised in Process and Reality, in a passage cited by Ervin Laszlo at the beginning of his book The Systems View of the World:

“… the true method of philosophical construction is to frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly to explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme… all constructive thought, on the various topics of scientific interest, is dominated by some such scheme, unacknowledged, but no less influential in guiding the imagination.”

Deliberately providing youngsters with a possible scheme/schema is one of the goals of this activity.
Significantly, in the quotations mentioned above, both Arnold and Whitehead anticipate certain crucial insights of 20th century cognitive psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela. Indeed, we human beings are systems, evolved to work within systems, and our initial cognitive dispositions reflect this. However, we could go further and suggest that just as a website cannot function without a good program which honors (and codes for) the site’s inherently nested and integrated structure, so too human beings tend to function optimally when:

  • they feel that they understand themselves and their personal place within their surroundings — at least to some degree;
  • they are encouraged to have an emotional appreciation for their wondrous heritage as living beings. In other words, ideally, their experience/education (both formal and informal) has allowed them to feel “at home” within their biodiverse “Earth Community” and the amazing Universe at large. In other words, they have a sense of grateful belonging.
  • they are able to glimpse their ancient lineage and beautiful futures — beyond the confines of their personal, physical bodies (i.e., they can identify both affectively and intellectually with the Cosmos and have some sense of biological and/or cultural immortality, most often — but not necessarily — derived from participation within their families’ religious/spiritual/social assemblies — including those with non-theistic perspectives such as secular humanism, etc.).1

As an educator privileged to teach in a 21st century Catholic elementary school, I am fortunate to be working within an institutional worldview which is, at its best, appreciative of both scientific inquiry and evolutionary theory (as well as beauty and codes for conduct!). Thus, our eleven- and twelve-year-olds study phylogeny and taxonomy in terms of the successive and radiating appearance of various groups from earlier life forms across the eons. While youngsters read the story of Genesis for its deep truths, they are not limited to literal interpretations because we are taught to read scripture using at least four levels of Biblical meaning (i.e., the literal or historical sense, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical). Hence, it is entirely possible for them to focus on the drama of life’s evolutionary unfolding (as revealed in the fossil records or recent genomic studies) without fear of somehow contradicting Biblical texts. Science class helps our young people strengthen their awareness of the unity and kinship of all life, as well as the vast time scales, intricate feedback loops, symbioses, cycles, and energy flows that characterize the workings of our Earth and Universe. Some of the students are also busy learning introductory chemistry. They participate in an optional program sponsored by the Chemical Education Foundation entitled “You Be the Chemist.” As a result, they’re absorbing information about electromagnetic waves and subatomic particles. They’re learning about hydrogen and helium-rich stars coalescing in space time following the Big Bang. They’re watching internet videos about the generation and scattering of heavier chemical elements across the Universe through exploding supernovae. They’re encountering the story of the swirling stardust that gathered to form our solar system, our sun, our planet, and eventually, our biosphere, and even our bodies!

With all this abundance of science knowledge whirling around in their young brains, students’ ability to grasp this complexity appears to improve significantly after discussion and classwork with the accompanying diagram. This exercise is a simple introduction to the essential aspect of systems theory mentioned earlier: the phenomenon of multiple levels of organization. Using this concept, youngsters are asked to consciously arrange the categories they’ve been studying (e.g., communities, galaxies, eukaryotic cells, families, ecosystems, individual atoms) into a figure that illustrates a few of these levels. Completing this exercise enables students to visualize and mark the actual relationships that exist between the many new material entities that they’re discovering.

Additionally, as you’ll notice, the activity offers participants an opportunity to express their aesthetic sensibilities and families’ cultural perspectives in their finished representations. As is the case with most assignments in my science program, students are encouraged to transform their completed work, in this case the diagrams, into unique objects that are colorful and pleasant to view. This represents a nod to the precious creativity of these young people, their roles as potential contributors to/co-creators of the loveliness of their world (even in their smallest gestures), and is an acknowledgment that for many, the Universe possesses a wondrous, numinous quality that deserves a degree of visual celebration! Thus, students can use this activity to both accommodate and customize the data that they’ve acquired by deliberately placing it within the broader context of their families’ spiritual and ethical understandings. If this is not of interest to them, they can still make their final work as beautiful as possible. Since our children are drawn from many continents and cultures, we make certain that this phase of the project is not restricted to a Christian vocabulary of the Sacred, nor is this step even required in the activity. However, I would like to emphasize the value that’s added when youngsters are permitted to reconfigure any sort of “objective” knowledge into some form of artistic, aesthetic expression. In this way, intellectual learning becomes something more than a mere instrument towards higher test scores or a career path. Instead, it becomes assimilated within and by the affective, inner dimensions of the young person, and can then be shared more readily with family and community for the benefit of all.

Reflecting on the lesson’s presentation and outcome, several observations seem worth passing along. Introducing this activity with a set of cheerful Russian Matryoshka dolls works well! These gorgeous, handcrafted wooden figures provide a colorful and tangible complement to the verbal explanation of nested systems. Perhaps not surprisingly, the children like to pass these around their tables to admire, take apart, and reassemble. Later, as the youngsters begin to contend with the systems challenge itself, I recommend that they look over the list of entities carefully — and then start with the very biggest phenomenon that they can identify. Next, they should move down to the second largest, and so on. I suggest that they write the names of the very tiny levels sequentially in the margins outside the ellipses (rather than trying to crowd words into the minuscule inner spaces). Finally, they should draw arrows connecting these labels to their particular locations.
I’ve found that this exercise is very useful for students who have not only learned the science content they’ve encountered, but who have also moved into the formal operational stage of cognition (as defined by Jean Piaget). Those who are primarily processing at the concrete operational stage find this sorting to be rather difficult. However, by working first in small teams and then, if necessary, completing the schema as a class project, everyone can experience a good degree of success. Those who are not quite developmentally ready for this task may still enjoy transforming their original black and white document into a charmingly decorated page.

Another option, if your students are struggling with this task, is to take a bit of inspiration from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. In the novel, Stephen Dedalus, the main character, recalls writing his own “Address in the Universe” at the beginning of his geography book. As a class project, you can step your children through this same process, exploring common, every day, humanly-defined, spatially nested locales — as well as some actual systems. Simply draw and label (on a chalk, white, or smart board) a series of expanding Venn Diagrams with a common center that will define the students’ physical location. Start with the youngsters themselves, their numbered schoolroom, their school’s name, and then, with volunteers chiming in, the school’s street address, the town or city, the province or state, the watershed or bioregion, the country, the continent, Planet Earth, the Solar System, Orion’s Arm, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Supercluster, the Universe — and then? At this point, we’ve had some spirited discussions about what exists beyond the Universe, with some positing multiverses, and others God or the Great Mystery (and me suggesting that perhaps “the Divine could be both outside and within all of this,” thereby introducing the possibility of panentheism). But in any case, we usually conclude by agreeing that whatever is larger than the Universe and whatever words we use to describe this phenomenon, we are all relatively happy and certain that we are alive just now in this classroom at this point in time! This sort of prefatory exercise can be very effective in acquainting children with the “both/and” nature of everyday reality — as well as its intriguing puzzles, the limits of language, and the process of nested classification.

For those students who are able to do this kind of analysis, thinking about natural phenomena in terms of parts, wholes, and inclusive sets can be quite exhilarating. Situating their blossoming empirical knowledge within a larger, culturally appropriate, metaphysical framework can also be a very reinforcing and reassuring development. One of my students, whose family hails from Taiwan, enthusiastically announced that he was going to put his finished illustration up on his bulletin board at home. He thought that it helped him to see how the Chi, which was mentioned often during his Saturday Chinese classes, could be understood in relation to what he’d been learning during his weekday science program.

To conclude, while you probably already know that Systems and Systems Models have been included as one of the seven key components in the Crosscutting Concepts Dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards, the question remains why select this particular systems diagram for use with your classes? Here are a few more reasons. In the first place, it can bring this powerful scientific insight, particularly the multi-level feature of systems theory, directly and visually to your students’ attention, even to those as young as eleven or twelve. Secondly, because the concept is presented within a clear and broad evolutionary narrative that encompasses astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and the life sciences, its relevance is amplified. Additionally, as in most authentic learning, its implications will probably be better assimilated or inferred simply because the ideas are arising as part of a non-aversive activity. Indeed, the project endeavors to respect students’ varied ways of learning, their affective priorities, and their aesthetic judgements. It even offers a technical, motor/kinesthetic component whereby participants are invited to skillfully craft a beautiful, sharable product. Also, the schema intentionally highlights systems theory’s capacity to fortify young people’s inherent emotional connectedness — their sense of kinship, “place,” and belonging within their material, biological context. Moreover, it challenges their logical-analytical skills and the breadth of their vision/imagination. Certainly these capacities need exercise and development! (To this point, how many times have you, as an educator or parent, heard a child say, “Oh no, that’s not a bird. That’s a chicken,” or “We’re not animals, we’re people,” or the truly terrifying, “They’re not humans, they’re …” — insert here the name of some ethnic, religious, or political group?) By deliberately guiding our students through an illustrated project such as this one, can we perhaps assist them — when they are neurologically ready — to transcend such misleading, rigidly concrete, overly narrow types of verbal literalism? Can we help them achieve more nuanced, well-informed kinds of thinking so that they better understand that objects typically have multiple identities simultaneously, and are themselves composed of systems? Can they learn that single words seldom suffice to explain qualities and functions within the complex webs of life, matter, and energy? International and intranational crises attest to our species’ need for more of this kind of thinking — as well as much more Compassion directed not only towards our fellow humans but towards the entire “Earth Community,” to borrow yet again Thomas Berry’s luminous phrase. Can systems theory and pleasant yet carefully considered work with illustrations such as this one help young people better understand humanity’s place within the Universe, allow them to grasp more fully the indispensable contributions that the smaller systems make to the larger ones, or enable them to recognize and appreciate the ways that these levels, and other systems within levels, continually “bring each other forth”2 — i. e. prompt each other to change and coevolve in a vast and delicate ballet? It is my impression that this sort of direct educational intervention can indeed nourish youngsters’ imagination and incline them towards more prosocial, proplanetary ways of thinking and acting. Perhaps it can even encourage them to become wiser, more zestful participants within Life’s lovely dance. I hope you’ll try this diagram and see what you think.

1. In point of fact, the great tragedy of most institutionalized, collectivized “modern” school settings (particularly secular ones) is that they often break young children’s highly creative, emotionally expansive, frequently biophilic, patterns of psychic functioning. This leaves the youngsters to stumble along with frustratingly narrow, highly verbal, anaesthetized types of concrete rationality (accompanied by a generalized disdain and distrust of intellectual pursuits and authority). To make matters worse, in adulthood, these resentful, fearful mindsets will be frequently paired with underdeveloped ethical frameworks and angry, damaged sensuality (a by-product of excessive reliance on verbal, ‘rational’ processing within the school.) People thus affected tend to soothe themselves with intense, competitive sociability; unhealthy foods or drugs, and vicarious emotions / distractions purchased through spectatorship —often delivered through electronic screens).
2. Maturana, Humberto R. and Varela, Francisco J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, MA: Shambala Press, 248.

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Berry, Thomas. (2014). Selected Writings For the Earth Community. Tucker, Mary Evelyn and Grimm, John (Eds.). Maryknoll, New York, NY: Orbis Books.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1997). 115-118. Retrieved July 10, 2017 from
Center for Ecoliteracy. (2017). Systems Thinking. Retrieved August 26, 2017 from
Laslow, Ervin. (1972). The Systems View of the World. New York, NY: George Braziller.
Macy, Joanna. (1991). Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. Albany, NH: State University Of New York Press.
Maturana, Humberto R. and Varela, Francisco J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, MA: Shambala Press. Retrieved August 19, 2017 from:
Michaelson, V., Trothen, T., Ascough, H., Pickett, W., (2016). Canadian children and spiritual health: Foundations for spiritual care. Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, 70(4), 244-256.
Piaget, Jean and Inhelder, Barbel. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.
Swimme, Brian Thomas and Tucker, Mary Evelyn. (2011). Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.
The Evolution Institute. (2017). Teaching Evolution Requires More Than Evidence. Retrieved Sept. 4, 2017 from

Edith Pucci Couchman teaches Art and Environmental Science at Infant Jesus School in Nashua, New Hampshire. She is the recipient of a 2017 New Hampshire Excellence in STEM Teaching Award from the Joint Committee of NH Engineering Societies, and was named the 2014 Teacher of the Year by the Hillsborough County Conservation District. Her current programs rely on organic, permaculture gardening, observation of nature, work in (and with) the visual arts, and active games to promote holistic, enjoyable, and socially constructive learning. Her new website is

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