A new major in cognitive science at Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences has been approved earlier This year. Now, the major, coordinated by Director, Professor 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 to understand the mind, we must draw on findings and tools from many fields, including psychology, philosophy, computer science, linguistics and neuroscience,” Prof. Nichols and Simmons-Lynch wrote in a statement. It is particularly notable for its fusion of technical and humanistic fields, according to Professor Nichols.
The program teaches the findings of cognitive science while equipping students with the technical skills necessary to study a wide range of topics, from artificial intelligence to human behavior. While the College of Arts and Sciences has successfully maintained a minor in cognitive science for more than thirty years, the new major was born out of demand from students and Cornell’s internationally renowned cognitive science faculty.
“Cornell has an illustrious history in cognitive science, boasting, among other things, the birth machine learning,” Professors 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 was a long and arduous effort that spanned many years, they said, requiring the go-ahead from various boards and the New York State Department of Education. It was approved in January 2022.
Many subclasses have started exploring 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 classroom, and that was the first time I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is what I can learn in school,'” Burglechner said.
Burglechner, who is also minoring in Spanish, was drawn to the diverse and relevant applications of the new major. As a research assistant in the Cognitive Language Science Lab, she said she was excited to take courses in the major’s five interdisciplinary concentrations: Mind and Culture, Evolution and Development, Language Science, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Science. computational cognitions.
This semester, Burglechner is taking a cognitive science course on interspecies communication.
The current major requires students must take one of two introductory foundation courses, statistics, 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 fundamentals and tools of cognitive science,” Professors Nichols and Simmons-Lynch wrote.
Erika Wellenstein ’25, who is determined to pursue cognitive science, said she feels the major offers fewer courses and less clear expectations for its students. However, Wellenstein enjoys having fewer requirements because she can take a diverse set of courses as she determines her focus.
According to Professor Nichols, cognitive science can also open doors to a wide range of careers, including technology, business, law and academia. This makes the major particularly appealing to students like Wellenstein, who have passions in various disciplines.
“I hope to combine the study of personality with ethics and social science to make some kind of social difference,” Wellenstein said.
Similarly, Arshia Agrawal ’26 seeks to study cognitive science to complement her interest in computing.
“It’s the perfect way to combine all my interests and explore their intersections,” Agrawal said.
Although developing a major is hard work, its creators say it has been extremely rewarding. Professor Nichols is eager for students to experience the field of cognitive science.
“I taught the introductory course for the major, and it’s been a pleasure teaching this material and getting to know the students,” he wrote. “It’s rewarding to build a program informed by the latest developments in the field.”