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    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  Aug 18, 2017
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Rensselaer Catalog 2017-2018

Cognitive Science

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Department Head: Sergei Nirenburg

Director, Graduate Program in Cognitive Science: Wayne Gray

Undergraduate Advising, Cognitive Science: Bram van Heuveln

Undergraduate Advising, Philosophy: Dan Thero

Undergraduate Advising, Psychology: Brett Fajen

Department Home Page:

Cognitive Science is the scientific study of the mind, brain, and intelligence, particularly as it relates to mental abilities such as reasoning, decision making, memory, learning, attention, language, perception, and motor control. This young and emerging interdisciplinary field lies at the intersection of psychology, computer science, philosophy, neuroscience, and linguistics. Cognitive scientists aim to discover fundamental principles that underlie all forms of natural and artificial intelligence, from high-level reasoning to perceptual-motor behavior. The pursuit of this alluring and ambitious goal requires the use of various methods, tools, and perspectives. Cognitive scientists build computational, formal, and quantitative models, conduct experimental research on behavior, and investigate neural mechanisms. The knowledge gained by cognitive scientists has numerous real-world applications, such as the design of robots, speech recognition systems, automated reasoning systems, and human-computer interfaces.

As one of the few genuine departments of cognitive science in the world, the faculty offers unique and exciting opportunities for students to focus on the scientific study of mind, brain, and intelligence. Staffed by a core of cognitive-science oriented psychologists, philosophers, and computer scientists, the department compliments Rensselaer’s traditional strengths in science, engineering, and technology, and is widely regarded as a leader in the area of computational cognitive modeling. The department offers a highly selective Ph.D. program in Cognitive Science and B.S. programs in Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Philosophy. Faculty research interests include computational cognitive modeling, artificial intelligence, human and machine reasoning, computational linguistics, perception and action, theoretical neuroscience, cognitive robotics, cognitive engineering, and advanced synthetic characters.

Research Innovations and Initiatives

Graduate training in Cognitive Science emphasizes research, modeling, and building of integrated cognitive systems. Within this broad scope the department has special strength in the following areas.

Artificial Intelligence
At Rensselaer AI is taken to be the field devoted to either engineering computational systems whose behavior is on par, or at least approaches, that of humans; or computational systems whose intelligence is regarded to be at once high by humans but qualitatively different than the capacities seen in humans. Of course, AI can be pursued in different ways. Here, given how AI is viewed, guidance as to how to engineer the relevant systems often comes from careful study of the cognitive powers of humans, including what forms of intelligence those powers classify as truly impressive.

Cognitive Engineering
Cognitive Engineering is the application of cognitive science theories to human factors problems. Putting cognitive theories to the test of real-world applications is a means of maintaining a focus on the truly important cognitive issues. At Rensselaer, cognitive engineering has two components: (1) research directed at solving applied problems, and (2) research directed at developing engineering tools that others with less cognitive training can use to solve applied problems.

Cognitive Robotics
Cognitive robotics is a field devoted to engineering robots whose actions are a function of knowledge, belief, preferences, plans, and so on. In short, a cognitive robot acts on the basis of the things that underlie the actions of human beings.

Computational Cognitive Modeling
Understanding an integrated cognitive system can be very complex. The possibilities for interaction among cognitive, perceptual, and action operations is astounding. The interplay of each of these with the other and with the external world cannot be simply predicted. Computation cognitive models provide a vehicle to manage this complexity with the goal of making progress towards understanding how integrated cognitive systems affect and are affected by their environment.

Computational Linguistics
The focus is on language uses that involves a deep understanding of semantics and intent. Work in the department includes integrating language parsing with reasoning about the world and people’s beliefs and desires; logically controlled languages for learning by reading; and using human language to retrieve and analyze information from heterogeneous sources.

Human and Machine Reasoning
Foci include logic-based and knowledge-based AI, theorem-proving, and psychology of reasoning. The multi-disciplinary group of researchers involved is known as Rensselaer Reasoning Group, which works out of the Rensselaer AI & Reasoning (RAIR) Lab. 

Perception and Action
This area of research focuses on perception with an emphasis on its role in the performance of both routine and skilled goal-directed action. Current research topics include visually guided locomotion in real and virtual environments, the coordination of eye and hand movements, and the integration of perception and action with higher-level cognition (e.g., learning and attention). At Rensselaer, these topics are investigated from various theoretical perspectives, including ecological psychology, dynamical systems theory, and computational cognitive modeling.

Undergraduate Programs

Baccalaureate Programs

At the undergraduate level, the department maintains separate programs in cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology, leading to the Bachelor of Science degree in each discipline, respectively. An important goal of the undergraduate program is to prepare students for careers in the rapidly growing “Information Economy,” marked by the confluence of computation and cognition.

Outcomes of the Undergraduate Curriculum
Students who successfully complete this program will be able to demonstrate:

  • an ability to demonstrate knowledge of and be able to apply basic research methods in Cognitive Science, including aspects of research design, data analysis, and data interpretation.
  • an ability to program in at least one computer language used in the production of a cognitive system, with a clear ability to communicate the underlying research thesis.
  • an ability to demonstrate knowledge and familiarity with various computational models of Human Cognition, Artificial Intelligence, and cognitive agent environment interactions.

Dual Majors

Dual majors are available in all (cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology) department curriculum areas.

Cognitive Science

Cognitive Science lends itself very well as a dual major with Computer Science, Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Mathematics, or Biology. Students majoring in Computer Science can be inspired by the findings in cognitive science to develop or improve algorithms used in Artifical Intelligence, or to design more ‘cognitively ergonomic’ computer interfaces. Students majoring in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences could use Cognitive Science to figure out how to make virtual more engaging, or how to make synthetic characters more psychologically plausible. Mathematics majors can try to mathematically describe the complex workings of the human mind or brain.  And finally, students majoring in biology may be interested in the effects of hormones or other chemicals on the brain and their subsequent effects on cognition and behavior.

Majors that may be combined with philosophy to form a dual major include computer science, physics, mathematics, biology, architecture, and various engineering majors (e.g., computer systems engineer). These dual programs serve the needs of those students desiring to combine the virtues of a liberal arts education with those of science, architecture, or engineering to achieve an education that is practical, stimulating, and diverse.

For example, a student majoring in computer science or mathematics could take eight additional philosophy courses that might include PHIL 2140 Introduction to Logic, PHIL 4140 Intermediate Logic and PHIL 4420 Computability and Logic. For a biology-philosophy dual major, key courses might include PHIL 2400 Philosophy of Biology, PHIL 4300 Environmental Philosophy, and PHIL 4310 Scientific Revolutions.

Dual majors with psychology may include computer science; electrical, computer, and systems engineering; and decision science and engineering systems. A dual major in management and psychology is also available. The Lally School of Management has established certain requirements that must be completed for this major in addition to those described above. For further information and a list of requirements for this dual major, see the Lally School of Management section of this catalog.

Minor Programs

The Department of Cognitive Science offers minors in Linguistics, Psychological Science, General Psychology, Philosophy, and Philosophy of Logic, Computation, and Mind. 

Graduate Programs

Master’s Programs

The Cognitive Science Department offers a Master of Science degree in Cognitive Science. The degree is open only to two groups of students. The first group is those who are already admitted to Rensselaer in a doctoral program. This includes students in the Cognitive Science doctoral program as well as students in other doctoral programs (e.g., Decision Sciences and Engineering Systems, Computer Science, and so on). Rensselaer doctoral students who desire a Master’s in Cognitive Science should contact the department directly. Other students able to obtain a Master of Science degree in Cognitive Science are those in the department’s five-year program that combines the Bachelor of Science in Psychology or Philosophy with the Cognitive Science master’s. See co-terminal B.S./M.S. programs for more information.

Co-terminal B.S./M.S .Programs

Qualified students, in consultation with an academic adviser, may design a five-year program to complete requirements for the Bachelor of Science in Psychology or Philosophy and the Master of Science in Cognitive Science. An additional 30 credit hours are required beyond the B.S. degree. Students must apply to the program prior to or early in the first semester of their junior year. This is a research-oriented Cognitive Science program that allows students to focus on one of the department’s research areas. Prior to applying, it is expected that students will have taken introductory courses in cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, and cognitive science, as well as been involved in one of the several research labs sponsored by department faculty.

Doctoral Program

The mission of the doctoral program in Cognitive Science is to train the next generation of world-class cognitive scientists and make seminal contributions to the field. In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science, this program trains students to integrate theories, methods, and tools from a variety of fields.

Because there are no traditional qualifiers, students become engaged in research from the beginning of their first semester in the program. Students work closely with individual faculty as well as teams of faculty, post-docs, and graduate students whose research interests include computational cognitive modeling, artificial intelligence, human and machine reasoning, computational linguistics, perception and action, theoretical neuroscience, cognitive robotics, cognitive engineering, and advanced synthetic characters. There is a strong emphasis on building models of natural and artificial cognitive systems using formal, quantitative, and mathematical tools. The department has excellent research facilities, such as eye tracking equipment, an array of robotics equipment, and a large-scale immersive virtual environment lab. For information about applying to this Ph.D. program, please contact Student Services Administrator Jennifer Mumby at

Course Descriptions

Courses in Philosophy, Psychology, and Cognitive Science are described under the department codes PHIL, PSYC, and COGS. 



Bringsjord, S.—Ph.D. (Brown University); logic and artificial intelligence, foundations of artificial intelligence and cognitive science, computational creativity.

Gray, W. D.—Ph.D. (University of California at Berkeley); interactive behavior, computational cognitive modeling, cognitive science.

Hendler, J.Ph.D. (Brown University); artificial intelligence, semantic Web, agent-based computing and high performance processing.

McGuinness, D.L.—Ph.D. (Rutgers University); knowledge representation and reasoning, explanation, proof, trust, ontologies, semantic Web.

Nirenburg, S.—Ph.D. (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Isreal); natural-language processing, modeling artificial intelligent agents.

Puka, W.J.—Ph.D. (Harvard University); ethics, cognitive-moral psychology, and applied cognitive science.

Rea, M.S.—Ph.D. (Ohio State University); visual psychophysics, lighting.

Reid, L.D.—Ph.D. (University of Utah); physiological psychology of reinforcement, drug and alcohol addiction.

Sun, R.—Ph.D. (Brandeis University); computational cognitive modeling, cognitive architectures, skill learning, computational studies of consciousness, multi-agent interaction, connectionist and hybrid models.

Wallace, W.A.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); decision processes and cognition, decision support systems, improvisation, visualization, and modeling.

Associate Professors 

Fajen, B. R.—Ph.D. (University of Connecticut); visual perception, perception and action, ecological psychology, dynamical systems modeling; virtual reality.

Kalsher, M.J.—Ph.D. (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University); human factors, industrial/organizational psychology, applied experimental psychology.

McShane, M.—Ph.D. (Princeton University); physiological simulation, emotion modeling, natural language processing.

Noble, R.G.—Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); psychobiology of choice and decision making.

Yang, Y.—Ph.D. (New York University); cognitive psychology, thinking, reasoning and decision-making, and cognitive science.

Assistant Professor

Si, M.Ph.D. (University of Southern California); interactive narrative/serious game, embodied conversational agent (ECA), computational modeling of decision-making and emotion, emotion detection, human-computer interaction, multi-agent system.

Research Associate Professor

Schoelles, M.Ph.D. (George Mason University); computational cognitive modeling, interactive behavior, natural language processing.


Destefano, M.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); games design, psychology of play, system dynamics.

Hubbell, C.L.—Ph.D. (University at Albany); behavioral neuroscience; psycho-pharmacology, learning.

Thero, D.—Ph.D. (University at Albany); philosophy, metaphysics, and consciousness. 

Traver, H.—Ph.D. (University at Albany); affirmative action, interactive learning, sexual harassment, industrial/organizational psychology.

van Heuveln, B.—Ph.D. (State University of New York at Binghamton); reasoning and logic, philosophy of computation, philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, cognitive science.

VerWys, C.—B.A. (University at Albany); social psychology, forensic psychology.

Walf, A.Ph.D. (University at Albany); hormone plasticity, behavioral neuroscience, and cognitive neuroscience.


* Departmental faculty listings are accurate as of the date generated for inclusion in this catalog. For the most up-to-date listing of faculty positions, including end-of-year promotions, please refer to the Faculty Roster section of this catalog, which is current as of the May 2017 Board of Trustees meeting.

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