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Using Cognitive Science to Bridge the Gaps Between Disciplines


In theory, liberal arts students embody interdisciplinarity: poets by morning and biologists by night, they study plasma in spacecraft propulsion while tackling ancient Greece philosophy. Yet such interdisciplinarity occurs by circumstance more often than by design because the faculty who teach poetry, biology, physics, and philosophy often lack the resources to link inquiry between their respective disciplines. We will improve interdisciplinary teaching and research at St. Olaf through an incubator focusing on the research methods of an inherently interdisciplinary field, cognitive science, broadly defined as the study of the mind and its processes. Our incubator has three main goals:

  1. Introduce faculty from diverse disciplines to cognitive science literature;
  2. Foster collaboration on interdisciplinary teaching modules or new courses grounded in cognitive science;
  3. Establish a working model for further faculty development through interdisciplinary work informed by cognitive science

The incubator will consist of a series of meetings through the summer of 2016 during which participating faculty will discuss readings, write and revise course proposals, and create resources to support future interdisciplinary work around cognitive science. Subsequent follow-up meetings and presentations over the 2016-2017 academic year will ensure that participating faculty can reflect on and disseminate their work.

Note: Content below is adapated from the project proposal. 

Interdisciplinarity typically exists between similar departments such as psychology and biology, art history and English, or language and philosophy. Less common are initiatives linking the sciences to economics, music, art history, or philosophy. A lack of sufficient incentive to cross the boundaries of disciplines and Faculties erodes the ethos of the liberal arts. Even where incentive exists, time remains limited. Various obligations or conflicts prevent faculty from attending attractive talks outside one’s primary interests. Curricular or pedagogy-related discussions with colleagues from dissimilar disciplines happen rarely, and when they do happen, the discussions are even more rarely followed by action.

Summer Incubator to Endorse Interdisciplinary Connections through Cognitive Science

Faculty participants will explore the field’s relevance and extension to various departments across the science and humanities, as well as its usefulness to understanding the philosophy of how we teach and learn. In identifying shared interests revealed through cognitive science, we can form durable long-term collaborations. Whatever the differences in our intellectual capacities and tastes, we all share an interest in how the brain/mind makes sense of its surroundings, both as we teach young minds and expand our own. Simply opening up important lines of communication will provide a strong foundation to intensify the liberal arts experience at St. Olaf College.

The summer incubator will target departments in the arts, humanities, and the social sciences to study how cognitive science can help us embrace interdisciplinarity in our teaching and research. Several major challenges currently face faculty susceptible to interdisciplinary teaching. First, scientific jargon unintentionally creates the feeling that the sciences are an insular club. Furthermore, the perceived limited application of research outside of the sciences can act as a deterrent. Second, scientists are often unaware that their practice is rooted in assumptions unfamiliar to students from diverse backgrounds (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status). Third, some students may prefer humanistic learning, and believe that the production (even consumption) of scientific research is not relevant to their future professions/careers.

The belief that science is unnecessarily reductive may discourage such students. At the same time, other students may feel intimidated by the creative process or the hours of practice required for the arts. Often the resulting disciplinary entrenchment creates unnecessary conflict between the arts/humanities and the sciences/social sciences. Such entrenchment, which may be implicitly reinforced by coursework and curricula, may lead to missed opportunities for students and faculty alike. We will explore interdisciplinarity through targeted readings and discussion, so faculty (and in turn, students) can recognize and understand the inherent connections between the arts/humanities and sciences/social sciences. In seeing the reciprocal influences between such departments, faculty will learn that disciplinary boundaries are actually gateways to new ways of thinking that spur curricular innovation.


This project directly advances the goals and priorities of St. Olaf College in two fundamental ways. First, cognitive science is inherently interdisciplinary and embodies the liberal arts commitment to integrative learning. By leveraging the strengths of various faculty from arts/humanities and science departments, cognitive science encourages students and faculty to think deeply about the nature of the mind, perception, attention and behavior. St. Olaf’s commitment to a comprehensive set of college-wide learning goals (StoGoals) is directly in line with the spirit of cognitive science. These underscore Critical Thinking, Integration and Application of material, Broad Knowledge of general coursework, with Specific Knowledge in fields of specialization, and Communication and Collaboration.

Cognitive science can help faculty discover areas where these goals can be enhanced in current coursework, uniting faculty across disciplines, and sparking opportunities for collaboration that are as of yet unrealized. Rapid technological advance and new models of higher education require us to imagine and adapt to a very different future. Such adaptation is imperative if we are to educate students who can grapple with the daunting challenges ahead. The versatility and durability of cognitive science enables faculty to learn more about how humans tackle challenges that are yet to be defined, by promoting flexible intellectual thought and enabling them to see connections to the larger community. St. Olaf has been very deliberate in pursuing such high impact practices via the StoGoals, and we believe that the cognitive sciences can make meaningful contributions to this mission.


We will bring together faculty from disparate disciplines for a summer incubator consisting of a series of 2-hour working lunches every 2 weeks, providing faculty with an opportunity to discuss Cognitive Science and its contribution to the interdisciplinary mission of the college. Readings will provide clear and explicit examples of how our disciplines (the more disparate the better) enhance each other. Speakers will help inspire new discussion, Kathy Galotti and Jason Decker from the Cognitive Science Program at Carleton, as well as Sashank Varma from University of Minnesota  have been invited to speak to the group.

Examination of cognitive science coursework at other institutions that connects to each participant’s home discipline will reveal places where connections can be made in their departmental curricula. This will allow each participant to create course proposals that span disciplinary boundaries, or identify places in their existing courses where a cognitive science perspective would be useful. Meetings will take place across campus, not just in science facilities. We do not just want to bring the humanities and arts into the sciences but want to make deliberate connections where people live their academic lives. We believe it is important to physically represent interdisciplinarity using embodied cognitive practices. This incubator will connect people and facilitate intellectual exchange that will sustain further progress beyond the sessions themselves, with the ultimate goal of forging teaching and research collaborations between the humanities and sciences.

There will be bimonthly 2-hour lunch meetings from June 1 to July 27, followed by 2 booster meetings in the academic year. At our kick-off meeting, we will leverage our proximity to Carleton and the University of Minnesota by inviting Kathy Galotti, Jason Decker, and Sashank Varma to speak, in an abridged version of the ACM Cognitive Science conference. Subsequent meetings will be led by humanities and science faculty from St. Olaf and will be housed in their respective buildings on campus. These meetings will include brief presentations, readings, break-out discussions and brainstorming sessions. Faculty will also research cognitive science programs and curricula at comparable liberal arts colleges to inform new practices at St. Olaf.

In the final meetings, participants will develop interdisciplinary course proposals, first-year seminar courses, new SoTL projects, high-impact research opportunities and/or off-campus experiences. We will encourage interdisciplinary collaborative faculty projects, though faculty members may work independently on their personal courses and research so long as cognitive science relevance or application is apparent. After the incubator is complete, the proposers will develop a website to serve as a resource for participants as well as for the St. Olaf and ACM communities. Booster meetings during the 2016-2017 academic year will enable participating faculty to review, reflect on and discuss changes made to current courses as a result of our summer incubator; refine and revise new course proposals; and write professional development grants to support new initiatives in teaching or provide FTE to advance the cognitive science curriculum.

Dissemination Strategies

We will keep records of our incubator and booster meetings (including the readings, discussion questions, issues raised, progress made, successful outcomes, etc.). From these notes, we will organize two lunches (one in the fall, one in the spring) through the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA) to disseminate new ideas and established outcomes from our summer incubator widely across faculty. These lunches are well attended by diverse faculty, as they provide a locus for conversation about new practices or pedagogical reform in learning and teaching in the liberal arts. This approach leverages an already existing forum on campus to provide additional time and space to nurture interdisciplinary cognitive science connections.

More formally, we will construct a website to host materials, readings and examples of successful outcomes from our meetings. Our website would also include a research guide, allowing students to see potential research topics from different disciplines, as well as links to the career center, so students can realize how their cognitive science interests could connect with career resources, internships, or local community partners. The website would be accessible to students and faculty alike, and could further serve as a resource for anyone interested in exploring the connections between the arts/humanities and sciences (at St. Olaf or beyond). This website can be easily developed using WordPress, St. Olaf’s supported pagemaker, and would be updated as new ideas and concepts are explored, as novel connections are made, or as successful outcomes are achieved.

Our website and research guides could be shared with the ACM campuses to help others who are seeking to run similar incubators. We hope that ideas for how to facilitate such a process will be useful to other campuses. Such public dissemination could allow students and faculty at institutions like ours, that do not have an existing cognitive science program, to forge novel interdisciplinary connections that might have been initially overlooked. Moreover, by inviting Kathy Galotti and Jason Decker to our summer incubator, we will lay groundwork for future conversations on the cognitive sciences between Carleton and St. Olaf. For instance, the two campuses together could identify off-campus collaborators for experiential learning or study abroad programs relevant to cognitive science.

Thus, our incubator could be an important first step in a long-term collaboration, and additional funding opportunities available to St. Olaf and Carleton faculty (Broadening the Bridge Grants, for example) could help sustain our initial efforts. Though these contacts may be specific to the Northfield community, other college programs could benefit from seeing the lists of community organizations with whom we are affiliated or could piggy-back on the established connections we’ve made with more national or international programs.

Outcomes and Significance

Our incubator will have three distinct outcomes.

  1. We will catalog relevant existing curricula for students and faculty interested in cognitive science, identify places in existing coursework where cognitive science approaches can be incorporated, and develop ideas for new integrative courses, including joint seminars, topics for First Year Writing courses, or Conversations.
  2. We hope our summer incubator will widely inform classroom practices. That is, faculty members across the college will be introduced to cognitive science literature and discussion on how students think, study and learn that may incite new approaches to teaching, classroom activities or assignments. Introduction to this literature can promote high-impact classroom opportunities or experiential community learning off-campus, and could lead to new scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) projects: faculty could develop teaching techniques (based on cognitive science literature) to help students learn as well as identify ways to concretely measure such learning among their students.
  3. We anticipate new high-impact research opportunities across the arts/humanities and sciences. By bringing faculty together across disciplines, we hope to uncover shared interests and possible avenues for scientific exploration. For example, in simply identifying interdisciplinary proposers for this project, we have already identified feasible research projects, such as how the cognitive science of language can inform political speech or how cognitive science can inform learning in music history.
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