A $125,000 grant from the George I. Alden Trust in Worcester, Mass., will allow St. Bonaventure University to develop a biopsychology program and enhance the computer science curriculum, providing undergraduate students with the opportunity to study the connections between brain, mind and behavior.
In this two-part initiative, the Department of Computer Science will purchase a PeopleBot robot, which is designed specifically to interact with people and will be used for undergraduate research and for public outreach activities. In the second phase, the Department of Psychology will create and equip a biopsychology laboratory that will be used for newly created courses in biopsychology and undergraduate research projects.
Combined, the two projects will reach all psychology and computer science majors as well as a significant portion of students majoring in the other sciences at St. Bonaventure.
Dr. Robert Harlan, head of St. Bonaventure’s Undergraduate Robotics Laboratory and co-author of the grant, said the PeopleBot robot will enable him to combine two lines of his research — his work in artificial intelligence involving the design of planning systems that can understand commands in English and carry them out in a simulated world, and his work in robotics involving developing software that will enable a robot to function in the real world.
Harlan said much of the coding for programs controlling the robot’s behavior, planning and reasoning will be developed by computer science undergraduates.
“It will provide them with a platform for developing real-time, mission-critical software,” he said, adding that students in other disciplines will be able to design and conduct experiments on how humans interact with the robot.
Harlan also noted that the PeopleBot will enable Dr. Anne Foerst, a theologian and member of the Department of Computer Science, to continue her experimentation with human-robot interaction begun at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Foerst, co-author of the grant and an internationally known expert on human-robot interaction, is the author of “God in the Machine,” a book that examines what robots can teach us about being human. The second part of the initiative will be conducted by Dr. Darryl Mayeaux, assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the grant, who will develop and subsequently offer the biopsychology lab class.
“Together, the two projects build a base for understanding the concept we call ‘mind,’ how it emerges from physiology, and what features of an interactive entity — biological or non-biological — lure us to attribute ‘mind’ to that entity,” said Mayeaux. Each level of biological organization and each emergent phenomenon is amenable to scientific study, he said.
According to Mayeaux, the biopsychology lab will offer students in introductory-level courses the opportunity to explore the biological foundations of behavior through lecture and lab classes, each of which will be organized around testing meaningful competing hypotheses.
In upper-division laboratory courses, including collaborative research with undergraduates, the project will offer more opportunities to work with animal models of learning processes and of disorders such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, he said.
“There are many scientific questions whose answers await discovery,” said Mayeaux, adding that learning by pushing back, in small steps, the borders of scientific information is “exciting, sometimes frustrating, but always unforgettable.”
A previous grant from the Alden Trust in December 2003 supported the purchase of a High Performance Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC) and a Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS), which are key pieces of scientific equipment used in the undergraduate science programs.
“St. Bonaventure has a strong commitment to a vibrant liberal arts education firmly grounded in the sciences,” said Stephen Stahl, Ph.D., dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “The Alden Trust grant will contribute significantly to a research-robust curriculum where our students will become research collaborators from the very first day on campus and will, over their four years, mature into competent, independent researchers before they head off to graduate school, industry, or secondary classrooms.”
Stahl noted that the Alden Trust grant is a significant step in helping the University to complete the current Kresge Foundation challenge. St. Bonaventure must raise $2,659,880 for construction/renovation of its science facilities — for equipment, and for science-related scholarships and endowment — by Oct. 1 in order to receive a Kresge Foundation challenge award of $850,000.
With the Alden grant, the remaining amount the University must raise in order to meet the challenge award is about $160,000, he said.