Cognitive Science Course History

by Edward P. Kardas

Southern Arkansas University

Modified: 2021-01-12

The current cognitive science class at Southern Arkansas University evolved from a seminar: The Nature of Intelligence. The inspiration for that seminar was Hofstadter's (1979) book Gödel, Escher, Bach. Soon that seminar evolved into a full-fledged cognitive science course (the course then carried either computer science or psychology credit, today it is a PSYC class only) using Decker and Hirshfield's (1990) text, The Analytical Engine. That text used Apple Computer's HYPERCARD to teach basic principles of computing. For the next several years I had students create Hypercard stacks on topics of their own choosing. One student, a baseball pitcher, wrote a stack on how to throw different baseball pitches. Another student wrote a stack about his native land, Malaysia. A nontraditional female student wrote her stack on the topic of her home business, ceramics. In 1997 because of the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, I switched the course from a hypercard format to a Web-based format without a textbook.

At first, most students used Claris Home Page to create their Web pages for the course. Only a small handful of students knew html before enrolling in cognitive science, so teaching the rest how to use Claris Home Page was an important first step. More recently, however, students have used PowerPoint to create their presentations. Then, I simply converted students' PowerPoints into html using the built-in utility. Now, because that utility is no longer part of PowerPoint, I convert them in PDF files. A big advantage to using PowerPoint is that students already know how to use it. Students use Prezi presentations as well.

Early in the semester, I introduce cognitive science as a field of study. Students choose one of the possible topics listed on the course Web page by e-mail. They list their top three choices. Then, on a first-come-first-served basis, I create groups to make student presentations on the listed topics. The class meets twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday) and just before we get to the assigned week for a student topic, those students e-mail me their presentation. Often, I do not get the presentation until a few minutes before class.

On a Tuesday, the students present their Web-based PowerPoint using the department's laptop computer and video projector. Some students have never used a computer in this fashion or used a trackpad. Soon, though, they master the technology and make their presentation. The rest of the students and I have paper copies of their presentation and take notes on it while they talk. Afterward, I ask the rest of the class to ask them questions. I require the class to ask at least 10 questions before I begin to ask them further questions. This process usually consumes the entire 80 minutes of class time.

On the following Thursday, I cover the same topic that the students did two days earlier. My presentations are made using html pages. Both my pages and the student pages can be seen on the OLD course website:

In addition, every year I create a new page and make links to the previous year's page. The old course Web page now contains 20 years of content, from 1997-2017 (The course was not offered in 2001.). The new page (this one) only contains one past year.

At first, tests were take home essay exams. Those exams are posted (and remain) to the old course Web pages. Over the last ten years, the course has become much more applied in its focus. Starting in 2002, topics like usability, visual displays, and interaction devices replaced topics like animal cognition and various logics. This change of emphasis reflected, I believe, a change in cognitive science itself. In 2004, I divided students into two groups and had them design cardboard mock ups of cell phones. Each group was designated as a rival design team and each had to create a new cell phone. Other such exercises have included looking at credit card readers, smartphone based browsers, and QR codes.

In 2015, the focus was on drones. Thanks to the SAU Teaching with Technology Commitee, the class had six drones available for experimentation. Interestingly, drones have become controversial and subject to FAA Drone Registration. In 2016, the emphasis was on another soon-to-be breakthrough area: driverless vehicles. The theme for 2017 was IoT, The Internet of Things. In 2018 it was machine learning and in 2019 it was voice assistants.

In summary, my cognitive science course has evolved through several generations. It started as a seminar on the general topic of intelligence, moved to a textbook based and computer supported cognitive science course, abandoned textbooks and moved to a Web-based course. A recent evolutionary step has been to make the class more applied. Most students have no idea what to expect when they first enroll. Most have no idea what cognitive science is, at first. By the end of the class, however, they do understand. In the past, teaching students Hypercard or html took up much course time. Now, though, most students already know how to create PowerPoints and Prezis. Before COVID I just took those presentations one step further by serving them. I plan to resume teaching the course in this manner (e.g., having students prepare new materials) and adding to the course Web page. However, until the class can resume meeting face-to-face students will not have to prepare such materials.


Decker, Richard & Stuart Hirshfield, (1990) The Analytical Engine; An Introduction to Computer Science Using Hypercard, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing,.

Hofstadter, Douglas R., (1979). Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

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