Office of Development and Alumni Programs

Department Websites

Other Websites

Admissions Office

Office of the Registrar

Honors Division

University Division

Continuing Studies

Graduate School

IU Bloomington

IU Big List

    An IU Alumni Association Constituent Publication

    The College
    Spring 1999


    The Mind Bending World of Cognitive Science

    By Eric Pfeffinger

    The Mind Bending World of Cognitive Science Only a handful of major universities, including IU, Brown, Stanford, and Yale offer programs in the exciting young field of cognitive science. IU's Cognitive and Information Sciences Program, established in 1989, with a major introduced in 1997, was among the first in the nation. And it is the model to which other colleges and universities look as they develop similar resources in response to the rapidly changing information age.

    "What's that?"

    That's the response that IU graduate student Kyle Wagner most often gets when he tells people he's getting his degree in cognitive science. That, or "So, you study the brain?"

    The confusion is understandable. Unlike, say, English or chemistry, cognitive science is a relatively young field of inquiry that defies a simple definition. The program's literature sums it up in this fashion: "Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and the nature of intelligence. Scholars can come from a wide range of backgrounds - including psychology, computer science, philosophy, mathematics, neuroscience, and others - but share the common goals of better understanding the mind."

    While Wagner works with computer models to explore the evolution of language, others might develop philosophical explanations of human reasoning; redesign computer programs to be easier to use; or study the acquisition of math skills in young children.

    "Cognitive science is a good blend," elaborates Rob Goldstone, associate professor of psychology and director of the undergraduate program. "It's a blend of fundamental philosophical and scientific questions, like 'What is the nature of the mind?' 'How do intelligent systems work?' 'How could we build a computer that learns from its own mistakes?' on the one hand, and useful applications on the other: 'How do I design this Web page so that it is understandable and informative?' 'How can I predict whether this individual will be a good credit risk?' 'How can I improve the learning and retention of information in my class?' "

    A novel academic structure

    For undergraduate majors, these questions begin to intersect and coalesce in the program's core requirements. Rather than the single introductory course required by some fields, CIS has four required core courses that instill formal foundations in - respectively - philosophy, math, computing, and experimentation, all with strong hands-on laboratory components.

    "It's a rather novel academic structure," notes Richard Shiffrin, professor of psychology and director of the CIS program. "It emphasizes the skills needed to operate in an information age in cognitive science, rather than a fixed body of content."

    Students go on to apply these practical skills to a variety of courses, depending on the concentration they choose: cognition, computation, foundations of philosophy, language, logic, neuroscience, or another concentration of their choice. "A good portion of our students are doing computation, earning the equivalent of a minor in computer science, if not a double major," says undergraduate adviser Melinda Stephan. "Others focus on the philosophy side. There are a couple interested in the business angle, studying consumer cognition - that's a new one for me. Someone else is combining it with criminal justice."

    The program's technical rigor and disciplinary flexibility are clearly selling points. "One of the ways we're selling ourselves is as a liberal arts and sciences program with a technical edge," Stephan says.

    "[Cognitive science] emphasizes the skills needed to operate in an information age."
    CIS Program Director
    Richard Shiffrin

    The small size of the program makes it even more attractive. While CIS boasts the participation of more than 100 faculty members representing 18 areas of study and all seven schools, only about 30 undergraduates have made it their major - although enrollment in the core courses has doubled during the past year.

    "The cognitive science classes are always small," says Dean's Scholar Jim Brink, a sophomore CIS major from Toledo, Ohio. "The ones I've been in have had 10 to 20 students. And the professors are very interested in and excited about what they teach." That excitement is augmented by the students in the class, who by virtue of their diverse interests and backgrounds - business, biology, computer science, speech and hearing - guide discussion in unpredictable and productive interdisciplinary directions.

    Collaborative inquiry also extends beyond the classroom. CIS students are often required to attend the cognitive science colloquium series, in which about four speakers a semester visit the campus to talk about issues ranging from heuristics (a simplistic definition: how people learn) to motor control. In addition, undergraduate CIS students run the Student Organization for Cognitive Science, which meets informally every Friday and has grown into what Stephan characterizes as a "small, thriving group." These friendly gatherings can revolve around activities as simple as discussing relevant articles or as involved as sponsoring screenings and discussions of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: First Contact. More »



    Last updated: June 10, 1999
    Copyright 1997-99, the Trustees of Indiana University