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Courses

The following information is from the 2017-18 Vassar College Catalogue.

Cognitive Science: I. Introductory

100a and b. Introduction to Cognitive Science 1

Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary exploration of the nature of mind and intelligence in whatever forms they may take, from animal (including especially humans) to machine. This course explores the modern history of our efforts to understand the nature of mind, asking such questions as how a purely physical entity could have a mind, whether a computer or robot could have genuine mental states, and what it really means to be intelligent or to have a mind. In the process of seeking answers to these questions, the course explores such phenomena as perception, memory, prediction, decision-making, action, language, and consciousness by integrating methods and concepts from a number of disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, computer science, neuroscience, biology, linguistics, and anthropology. Material from economics, education, mathematics, engineering, and the arts is increasingly integrated into the field as well. No background in any of these disciplines is assumed, and this course is intended to serve as an introduction, for both majors and non-majors, to the unique multidisciplinary approach to studying problems of mind that Cognitive Science represents. Janet Andrews, Josh de Leeuw, John Long.

110 The Science and Fiction of Mind 1

Our understanding of what minds are and of how they work has exploded dramatically in the last half century. As in other areas of science, the more we know the harder it becomes to convey the richness and complexity of that knowledge to non-specialists. This Freshman Course will explore two different styles of writing for explaining new findings about the nature of mind to a general audience. The most direct of these styles is journalistic and explanatory and is well represented by the work of people like Steven Pinker, Bruce Bower, Stephen J. Gould, and Ray Kurzweil. The second style is fictional. At its best, science fiction not only entertains, it also stretches the reader's mind to a view of implications and possibilities beyond what is currently known. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, and Richard Powers all provide excellent models of this kind of writing. In this course students practice both ways of writing about technical and scientific discoveries. By working simultaneously in both styles it should become clear that when done well even a strictly explanatory piece of science writing tells a story. By the same token even a purely fictional narrative can explain and elucidate how the real world works. The focus of our work is material from the sciences of mind, but topics from other scientific areas may also be explored. This course does not serve as a prerequisite for upper-level courses in Cognitive Science. Ken Livingston.

Open only to freshmen; satisfies the college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

Two 2-hour periods.

Cognitive Science: II. Intermediate

211a. Perception and Action 1

This course is about the ongoing, dynamic, causal loops of action and perception that situate agents in the world and form the foundation for their intelligence. Topics include how physical energies become perceptual experiences, how systems evolve, develop, and learn the ability to perform complex actions, and how it is that actions are brought under the control of perceptions. Material is drawn from the neurosciences, robotics, human and non-human animal behavior research, and philosophy. Classes include regular laboratory work including human experimental work and robotics. Ken Livingston.

Prerequisite(s): COGS 100.

Two 75-minute periods, plus one 4-hour laboratory.

213a. Language 1

This course considers the rich and complex phenomenon of human language from a multidisciplinary perspective. The emphasis is on the cognitive representations and processes that enable individual language users to acquire, perceive, comprehend, produce, read, and write language. Consideration is given to the relation of language to thought and consciousness; to neural substrates of language and the effects of brain damage on language ability; to computational models of language; and to language development. Throughout, language is examined at different levels of analysis, including sound, structure, and meaning. Janet Andrews.

Prerequisite(s): COGS 100.

Two 75-minute periods.

215b. Knowledge and Cognition 1

This course asks how knowledge and cognition contribute to the functioning of biological and synthetic cognitive agents. Along the way it inquires into the origins and nature of knowledge, memory, concepts, goals, and problem-solving strategies. Relevant philosophical issues are examined along with research on the brain, experimental evidence from cognitive psychology, computer models, and evolutionary explanations of mind and behavior. A major goal of the course is to explore how cognitive scientists are coming to understand knowledge and cognition within an embodied agent embedded in a real world. Gwen Broude.

Prerequisite(s): COGS 100.

Two 75-minute periods.

219b. Research Methods in Cognitive Science 1

In this course, students learn to apply the principal methodologies of cognitive science to a specific problem in the field, such as sentence processing or visual form perception. The methods are drawn from human neurophysiology, experimental cognitive psychology, computer modeling, linguistic and logical analysis, and other appropriate investigative tools, depending on the specific issue chosen for study. A major goal of the course is to give students hands-on experience with the use and coordination of research techniques and strategies characteristic of contemporary cognitive science. The course also plays a critical role in preparing students for the senior thesis.  It is therefore strongly encouraged that this course be completed by the junior year.  Janet Andrews, Josh de Leeuw.

Prerequisite(s): PSYC 200 and either COGS 211, COGS 213, or COGS 215.

Regular laboratory work. Enrollment limited.

Two 75-minute period and 5-hour lab.

220b. Autonomous Robotics Design Competition 1

This course gives students with an interest in robotics an opportunity to explore basic principles of robot design and programming in a hands-on laboratory environment. The specific nature of the task to be accomplished varies each year, but in all cases the problems to be solved require thinking about the key issues that confront any robot designer: How is the robot situated in its environment? How does the design of the robot's body affect its intelligence? What are the optimal strategies for programming flexible intelligence in the robot (e.g., behavior-based or reactive systems, world modeling and planning systems, hybrid systems)? Students are organized into teams with balanced skill sets and compete to complete the assigned task most effectively in an end-of-semester competition. The design and construction components of the course are supported by classroom instruction in basic electronics, hardware design and building techniques, and relevant programming skills. Josh de Leeuw.

Prerequisite(s):Either COGS 211, CMPU 102, or permission of the instructor.

Students who have neither COGS 211 nor CMPU 102 as prerequisites may still have sufficient background to take the course depending on other skills and should consult with the instructor about readiness to take the class.

Two 75-minute periods.

282 Modeling Minds, Brains, and Behavior 1

In this course students learn to apply computational methods to the study of minds, brains, and behavior. The course covers several frameworks for modeling, including symbolic, connectionist (sub-symbolic), probabilistic (including Bayesian), and agent-based perspectives. A major focus of the course is to appreciate that each of these approaches has merits and that, depending on the phenomenon of interest, different modeling tools might be needed.  Hands-on experience with modeling experimental data and computer programming are essential parts of the course, but no prior programming experience is required. In addition to the importance of these approaches for students in Cognitive Science, the techniques explored are also of value to students in Neuroscience and Behavior as well as other behavioral sciences. Josh de Leeuw.

Prerequisite(s): COGS 100 or NEUR/PSYC 241 or NEUR/PSYC 243; or permission of the instructor.

One 75-minute period and one 2-hour period.

290a and b. Field Work 0.5 to 1

298a and b. Independent Work 0.5 to 1

Cognitive Science: III. Advanced

300a. Senior Thesis 0.5

A thesis written in two semesters for 1 unit.

Yearlong course 300-COGS 301.

301b. Senior Thesis 0.5

A thesis written in two semesters for 1 unit.

Yearlong course COGS 300-301.

302a and b. Senior Thesis 1

A thesis written in one semester for one unit.

311 Seminar in Cognitive Science 1

The topic of the seminar varies regularly, but is always focused on some aspect of thought, language, perception, or action considered from the unique, synthetic perspective of cognitive science. The seminar is taught by faculty members in the program. May be repeated for credit if the topic has changed.

Topic for 2017/18a: Qualitative Methods: Theory and Practice. This course focuses on methods for studying the subjective experience, thinking, and behavior of organisms, including in their real world contexts. Students are introduced to methods such as: structured and open-ended interview, journaling , experiential sampling, non-intrusive and participant observation, case studies, and longitudinal data gathering and how they are used in research and have hands-on experience with some of these methods. We also explore a set of basic philosophical issues regarding ways of knowing, whether it is ever possible to attain objective knowledge, the reliability of subjective data, the role of context in organism functioning, and the related problem of ecological validity. We consider the advantages and limitations of the methods that we study. The focus is on qualitative research methods. Gwen Broude.

Prerequisite(s): one of the following: COGS 100 and one 200-level course, or permission of the instructor.

Topic for 2017/18b: Information. Few concepts are as central historically to cognitive science as the concept of information.  It was one of the core ideas around which the multidiscipline coalesced in the 1960s and 70s, with threads that help to stitch together fields as disparate as computer science, the behavioral sciences, philosophy, and neuroscience.  But like many ideas that are first transformative but then become routine, the real history and significance of the concept of information has become vague and its detailed meanings and implications lost or glossed over among many in the field.  Our goal in this seminar is to revisit the history of this idea and to explore its power, its limitations, and its future role in the field.  When and how did the idea of information stop being an ordinary term of explanation about sharing knowledge and become a technical scientific term?  How did the idea that we think or learn by processing information come into being?  What is the relationship between formal theories of information and meaning?  Is there a difference between information and meaningful information?  Is there a deeper relationship between the concept of information and the phenomenon of consciousness.  Does this relationship link the idea of information, and thus the phenomenon of consciousness, to some of the most fundamental laws of the universe itself? Josh de Leeuw and Ken Livingston.

Prerequisite(s): one 200-level Cognitive Science course and permission of the instructor.

One 3-hour period.

312 Mind Reading: The Cognitive Science Book Club 1

The goal of this course is to explore interests and issues from the field of Cognitive Science that go beyond the Cognitive Science curriculum. These include methodological and theoretical issues as well as empirical work, narrative, and more. The course is book-driven and discussion-intense. Think of it as a Cognitive Science book club. We read books, lots of them, and talk about them. Past topics have included: free will, consciousness, embodiment, first person subjective experience, neuroscientific methods, the anthropological stance, artificial intelligence, origins of morality, story, and theory of mind. Books and topics change each year. Gwen Broude.

Prerequisite: any 200-level course in Cognitive Science and permission of the instructor.

One 2-hour period.

399a and b. Senior Independent Work 0.5 to 1