Cognitive Science Department adds bachelor's degree

RPI is offering a new degree program: a Bachelor of Science in cognitive science, offered by the Department of Cognitive Science in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. The program has been in development for over three years and was approved in December by the New York State Education Department. Undergraduates are now able to declare a degree in cognitive science, and the program will start admitting new students in the fall.

Cognitive science is “a science of the future” that “can only go forward,” said Bram van Heuveln, director of undergraduate studies in cognitive science. The subject is highly interdisciplinary—it has its roots in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and computer science with ties to several other subjects, from linguistics to biology. This is reflected in the curriculum, which requires core courses in the “three pillars” of psychology, philosophy, and computer science. (Van Heuveln commented that these pillars set the program apart from most other undergraduate cognitive science degrees, as many schools lean heavily on one or two pillars rather than incorporate all three.) This is because the degree is often part of another department, such as that of neuroscience or philosophy, and is usually colored by the discipline of the associated department. RPI, on the other hand, is one of the few universities with a Department of Cognitive Science. “Students will graduate from the program with a solid grounding in computer science, philosophy of mind, and cognitive psychology,” said Acting Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Wayne Gray.

“If we have any slant, it’s a computational slant,” said van Heuveln, remarking that this is fitting for a university that focuses on engineering. Vice President for Student Life Eddie Ade Knowles appeared to agree; he stated that “The program strategically builds on some strengths we already have as an institution.” Cognitive science is intimately related to computer science and has many technological applications. Van Heuveln noted the current demand for smarter technology and the field of robotics, calling both areas “inherently interdisciplinary” because they call on both computational and psychological knowledge. The curriculum requires four computer science courses and three math courses, and includes several recommended computational electives. Students interested in the computational angle will be able to tailor the program to their interests by making use of electives and their choice of thesis topics.

The Department of Cognitive Science has offered a doctoral program in cognitive science since 2003, and has had a Master’s program open to only a small group of students. The new Bachelor’s program, will be added as a major by an estimated 15–20 current students, says van Heuveln. He expects an additional five to 10 students to enroll in the program as freshmen each year. “We’ll grow,” he said, explaining that the program must start out small because of limited faculty.

Cognitive science graduates are equipped to enter several different career areas upon graduation, and will be able to point to an interdisciplinary field of study, something van Heuveln notes can be very marketable. The Department of Cognitive Science also boasts impressive faculty members in the burgeoning field. According to Knowles, “We have a very strong cognitive science group and faculty, so from that perspective students coming here will have the benefit of working with some really world class people.”