A new cognitive science major within Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences was approved earlier this year. Now, the major, coordinated by director Prof. Shaun Nichols, cognitive science, and program manager Julie Simmons-Lynch, is open for the first time this fall semester.
“The major, and cognitive science itself, is rooted in the idea that in order to understand the mind, we need to draw on the discoveries and tools of many fields, including psychology, philosophy, computer science, linguistics and neuroscience,” Prof. Nichols and Simmons-Lynch wrote in a statement. It is especially distinct in its merging of technical and humanistic-focused fields, according to Prof. Nichols.
The program teaches the discoveries of cognitive science while also equipping students with the technical skills to investigate a wide array of topics, from artificial intelligence to human behavior. While the College of Arts & Sciences has successfully maintained a cognitive science minor for over thirty years, the new major emerged out of student demand and Cornell’s internationally distinguished cognitive science faculty.
“Cornell has an illustrious history in cognitive science, boasting, among other things, the birth of machine learning,” Prof. Nichols and Simmons-Lynch wrote in a statement to The Sun. “We wanted to celebrate and promote this area of excellence at the University.”
The procedures leading to the creation of the major were a long and arduous effort that spanned many years, they said, requiring a green light from various councils and the New York State Education Department. It was approved in January 2022.
Many underclassmen have started to explore the major for the first time. Natasha Burglechner ’25 entered Arts and Sciences undecided about her academic pursuits before taking [COGST 1101] Introduction to Cognitive Science last year.
“I just remember sitting in the class, and it was the first time I was like ‘I can’t believe this is what I can be learning in school,’” Burglechner said.
Burglechner, who is also minoring in Spanish, was drawn to the new major’s diverse and relevant applications. As a research assistant in the Cognitive Science of Language lab, she said she is excited to take classes across the major’s five interdisciplinary concentrations: mind and culture, evolution and development, language science, cognitive neuroscience and computational cognitive science.
This semester, Burglechner is taking a cognitive science class on interspecies communication.
The major currently requires students to take three core courses: one introductory course, a statistics course, a data science/structured thinking course and at least one course from three of the five concentrations.
“The first priority is to ensure that students learn the fundamental principles and tools of cognitive science,” Prof. Nichols and Simmons-Lynch wrote.
Erika Wellenstein ’25, who is set on pursuing cognitive science, said she feels that the major offers fewer courses and the expectations for its students are less clear. However, Wellenstein appreciates the smaller amount of requirements since she can take a diverse set of classes as she determines her focus.
According to Prof. Nichols, cognitive science can also open doors to a wide range of careers, including tech, business, law, and academia. This makes the major particularly appealing to students like Wellenstein, who have passions in various disciplines.
“I hope to combine study of personality with ethics and social science to make some sort of social difference,” Wellenstein said.
Similarly, Arshia Agrawal ’26 seeks to study cognitive science to complement her interest in computer science.
“It’s the perfect way to combine all of my interests and explore their intersections,” Agrawal said.
Though the development of a major requires a lot of work, its creators say it has been extremely rewarding. Prof. Nichols is eager to see students learn about the field of cognitive science.
“I have taught the introductory class for the major, and it is a delight to teach this material and get to know the students,” he wrote. “It’s rewarding to build a program informed by the latest developments in the field.”