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Big Brain Brotherhood: Cognitive Science Association

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The Cognitive Science Association (CSA) at UCI was founded by cognitive sciences alumna Angelina Quagletti with just three board members and a simple mission in summer 2019. 

“[The founding members] felt that there wasn’t enough community within current cognitive science majors, and we were kind of left in the dark,” current CSA President and third year cognitive sciences student Tommie Huynh said. “It was hard to navigate courses and the major because it’s a pretty small major.” 

According to Huynh, these challenges stem from the ambiguous and interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science. 

“Academia has not really well-defined it quite yet,” Huynh said. 

Huynh described cognitive sciences as being based on five academic pillars: computer science and artificial intelligence; neuroscience; psychology; linguistics; and philosophy. With such a wide breadth of study, students within the program can find it hard to narrow down their interests and figure out where to go. 

“[Quagletti] wanted more of a peer support network,” Huynh said. “We can help you with guidance on graduate school … and [help with] resumes and volunteer opportunities.” 

In addition to the extracurricular and professional support, the CSA also provides academic resources for its members. One event is “Courses in Cognitive Science,” where students learn more about the cognitive science curriculum and speak with students who have already taken the course. 

With such an interdisciplinary subject, crossovers are inevitable and celebrated. Even though CSA focuses on creating a home base for cognitive science students, Huynh stated that the organization is open to all. 

“I think if you like cognitive science, it doesn’t really matter what major you’re in. We’re not gatekeeping, you know,” Huynh said. 

For example, the field features a close collaboration with computer science. 

“They use our theories that we derive from cognitive science, but computer science actually executes them and implements them,” Huynh said. “We can apply their code that they create in our experiments to study human behavior.” 

Many of the unions between cognitive science and related disciplines are most evidently observed in the lab, which is a cornerstone of the Cognitive Sciences program.

The CSA held their first major in-person function, the “Research Involvement Event” event on Oct. 7. The event was organized by CSA’s Internal Vice President Ren-Hui Michelle Tham, a fourth year cognitive sciences student, and Co-Internal Vice President Gloria Cheng, a third year cognitive sciences student. The presentation, which featured the major’s Department Chair professor Ramesh Srinivasan, Undergraduate Director Dr. Michael Lee and six student panelists, gave insider tips on how students could get into a research lab and what they could get out of it. 

The CSA is a tight-knit unit, working together to ensure that students and peers are successful. In the spring quarter 2021, CSA students came together to raise their voices in opposition to the Department of Cognitive Sciences program’s B-minus requirement for major-required classes. 

The UCI course policy states that students can retake classes in which they earn a C-minus or lower. However, this posed a major issue when combined with the departmental policy. 

If cognitive sciences majors earned either a C or C-plus in a major-required course, they were unable to retake the class since it violated the university policy. Students were dropped from the cognitive sciences major entirely if they were unable to make the B-minus cutoff. 

The policy had a difficult loophole that allowed students to fail the classes deliberately in order to retake them and stay in the cognitive sciences major. 

“It was unnecessary,” Huynh said. “That’s not something you want in academia. You want someone to try their hardest, honest and fair work.” 

Thanks to the CSA students’ unification, petitions and testimonies, the B-minus policy was overturned effective fall 2021. Now cognitive science students are only required to earn a C or above to pass major-required courses, which aligns with the campuswide policy. 

“I think it was a direct consequence of what [the] Cognitive Science Association did. I really loved that about the cognitive sciences major: we did that, all student-based. We saw the results, and that made me feel empowered,” Huynh said.

Lauren Le is a STEM Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at laurenl9@uci.edu.