Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to investigate how the heuristics course co-taught by Heinz von Foerster, Herbert Brün, and Humberto Maturana (1968–1969) influenced cybernetic research in the USA. Design/methodology/approach– The author accessed the archived material from three sources: the Herbert Brün Library, the University of Illinois Library, and the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) and interpreted these materials in light of the cybernetics literature, and the publications of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). Findings: The heuristics course had major consequences in von Foerster’s evolving critique of education, and in Brün’s work towards founding a School for Designing a Society. von Foerster radically reoriented the BCL toward unconventional course proposals. He also began to critique objectivity and positivism, shifting the foundations of cybernetics and proposing a meta-cybernetics. The year that von Foerster retired, the BCL and the ASC ceased to function. When the ASC returned in the 1980s it took on new emphases, including education and design. It appears von Foerster was pivotal in the shift of emphasis. Originality/value – The findings add new dimensions to the story of the decline of the BCL in the 1970s, and the re-emergence of the ASC in the 1980s with new emphases (such as design) that are not traditionally found in scientific research.