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Cognitive Science Program Goals and Objectives

Cognitive Science begins with the premise that all of us take it for granted that we are possessed of minds. The discipline examines that assumption by asking a variety of questions: e.g., What, exactly, are we referring to when we talk about the mind? What endows a mind with the property of being conscious? Do you have to be a human being to have a mind?

Cognitive Science is a multidisciplinary field encompassing disciplines ranging from philosophy and psychology to anthropology, neuroscience, and computer science. The hallmark of the field is a genuinely multidisciplinary outlook in which the methods and perspectives of all of the component disciplines are simultaneously brought to bear upon questions that advance a unified exploration of mind. The program offers a course of study that suits the liberal arts vision because it is, in a way, a kind of microcosm of what a liberal arts education is about. We ask questions from a broad range of perspectives, expecting that the collaboration of many theories, methods, and points of view will yield the most robust picture of what minds are and how they do what they do.The Introductory Cognitive Science course meets several educational goals for all students. The course fulfills the quantitative requirement and works to develop students' appreciation of the value of the cross-disciplinary method. The course emphasizes writing and encourages students to bring evidence to bear on their understanding of phenomena, while avoiding the impulse to accept evidence uncritically. Cognitive Science has the special advantage of contributing to general education, because questions concerning mind are so important to many other disciplines. Consequently, students who take any of our courses leave with knowledge, tools, perspectives that will deepen their appreciation mind-related themes in other fields of inquiry. The program also initiated and continues to host an annual, college-wide robot competition open to students within and outside the program. The competition allows students to work collaboratively and develop skills both necessary for building robots and relevant to a broad range of endeavors.We expect majors to develop a deep theoretical and practical appreciation of the field's multidisciplinary commitment. They must gain a solid understanding of each of the various theoretical positions represented in the field, including, but not limited to, those of philosophy, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, biology, and evolutionary theory. Further, majors must achieve an understanding of and practical competence in the methodologies of the field, such as logic, statistical reasoning and methods, and computer simulation and programming. Majors must also understand the theory, findings, and controversies characterizing the history and current state of the field, including the latest paradigms and debates. Finally, students should be able to demonstrate the ability to apply the multidisciplinary strategy of inquiry to questions related to mind (and, we hope, to other issues outside the field). 

To meet these goals, we have devised a coherent structure of courses and prerequisites. All students must take an introductory course that provides basic exposure to the field, including some practice in methodology. Without this course, students will have serious difficulties in upper-level courses. Majors then take three 200-level courses that examine some specific aspect of mind in greater depth, studying empirical evidence in terms of topic-relevant theory, data, methods, and debates. We also include "pointers" from one course to the next to indicate to students how the content matter of each course is related to that of others. Further, majors must take our laboratory course, in which they develop their practical competence by applying various methodologies to research questions in the field. In the 300-level seminar, majors apply the skills, content, and outlook they have acquired to a topic at an advanced level in a group setting. The major culminates with the thesis in which the student must incorporate the theory and methodology of at least two fields represented in cognitive science.

In addition to the requirements described above, students must also take four elective courses. We have organized possible electives thematically into what the program calls paths. These include embodied agents, evolved minds, cognition and the arts, cognition and language, cognition and culture, cognitive development and education, formal analysis of mind, decision-making and rationality, and mind and brain. This path structure helps to provide students with a coherent course of study. We wanted the student's package of electives to be internally coherent and to allow him/her to emerge with a sense of having gained some depth of understanding about an area relevant to cognition. The path structure also helps to guide students toward possible thesis topics.