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Cognitive science conference to draw
academics from many disciplines
(April 12, 1999)

For many academics, "interdisciplinary" is the latest buzzword, encouraging collaboration with colleagues in other fields when the opportunity arises. But for cognitive scientists, the approach is a necessity because without it their field wouldn't exist.

Cognitive science is the study of how people, animals and machines perceive, act, know and think. Academics from fields as varied as psychology, linguistics, philosophy, neuroscience, computer science and anthropology are drawn to the rapidly growing science.

Not only is cognitive science a hot topic across the country, it's also garnering attention at UConn. Late last year, faculty from several departments formed the Cognitive Science Focus, an initiative designed to enhance research in cognitive science.

Although there had been discussion about forming a cognitive science group previously, it didn't come together until some key things happened on the administrative level, said Jay Rueckl, an associate professor in the psychology department and chair of the organizing committee for the Cognitive Science Focus.

The administration's encouragement of interdisciplinary work and the arrival of several new faculty

members, such as Whitney Tabor, an assistant professor of psychology, helped pave the way for the formation of the Cognitive Science Focus. Rueckl, Tabor - who is both a psychologist and a linguist - and several others met and put together a proposal for the group. Its first meeting attracted nearly 30 people, Rueckl says.

"I think there was a real intellectual desire for that kind of contact," Rueckl says.

On April 30 and May 1, people interested in the field will have an opportunity to interact with their peers at the UConn Conference on Cognitive Science at the Dodd Center. Organizers hope the conference will attract scholars who want to discuss current issues and developments in cognitive science.

"We want it primarily to be a community-building thing," Rueckl says.

More than 20 people are scheduled to speak at the conference, which will also feature poster presentations by undergraduate and graduate students. Through the talks, Rueckl hopes attendees will learn who their colleagues are and what they are doing.

"The conference will give us a chance to recognize the community that already exists," says James Boster, a professor of anthropology who is also one of the conference organizers. "It's time to allow the implicit committee to recognize itself."

Although the conference is the most visible endeavor of the Cognitive Science Focus, members are also working to put together a new undergraduate major. A handful of students are now doing individualized majors in the field, but Rueckl says he hopes to have an interdisciplinary major in cognitive science in place within the next year.

The plan is to have students take core courses from at least four departments, meet a research requirement and take a number of advanced courses from several departments. According to Rueckl, students would be able to tailor the major to their interests.

Rueckl wants the major to be known as a tough one and hopes it can be used as a recruiting tool to attract top students.

"It will never be the biggest major on campus, but I think it will attract some of our brightest and most interesting students," he says.

To learn more about the Cognitive Science Focus, the upcoming conference and the new undergraduate major, check the website at

Allison Thompson