Mind matters

Chico State partners in a new program blending psychology and media

Chico State professor Neil Schwartz (right) met up recently with Wolfgang Schnotz and Erica DeVries. The three created the International Cognitive Visualization Program.

Chico State professor Neil Schwartz (right) met up recently with Wolfgang Schnotz and Erica DeVries. The three created the International Cognitive Visualization Program.

Imagine a jury that is in deliberation. Jurors surround a table full of diagrams, pictures and data while trying to decide whether a man is guilty of murder. They see image after image, each one evoking a different thought or reaction. They discuss the case, and while they’re deciding how to vote, those images play again and again in their minds.

For lawyers on both sides, what the jury sees can make or break a case. What we see affects what we remember and what we learn. Academically and practically, it’s a powerful subject, which is why Chico State is now a partner in a new international graduate-studies program designed to produce experts in what should go into visual media, such as images that are shown to a jury.

Chico State psychology professor Neil Schwartz helped set in motion the unique program, called the International Cognitive Visualization Program, which will begin accepting applications in the spring for its first crop of students.

The program will generate a new breed of experts. Blending parts of several areas of study into one, graduates will learn how to use images to evoke particular responses. Then, they will use that knowledge to create visual media, such as computer animations, diagrams and textbook illustrations.

“[The program] is the first of its kind in the U.S.,” Schwartz said. “It actually produces specialists in how people think, respond, get aroused and moved emotionally.”

Schwartz collaborated with colleagues Wolfgang Schnotz and Erica DeVries, professors in Germany and France, respectively, to create the program. It came to fruition this year when the group received a five-year grant from the Atlantis program, which is jointly administered and supported by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture. The grant includes $416,000 each year for both Europe and the United States.

From the grant, each student will receive a $12,000 stipend for the overseas portion of the program, while paying standard graduate-level tuition in the States. The debut semester, coming next fall, will kick off at University of Koblenz-Landau in Koblenz, Germany, a region with similarities to Chico, Schwartz said. The second semester will take students to University Pierre Mendès France in Grenoble, France. Then, students will come to Chico State for one year. Graduates will earn an international, double master’s degree and be known as “cognitive visualization specialists.”

Schwartz acknowledged that knowing how to manipulate visual cognition could potentially put graduates in a coercive position. He noted that students will be encouraged to abide by a psychological code of ethics when they enter the workforce. In fact, the program will include a strand of ethics courses, he said.

While in Chico, students will partake in internships throughout the year in pairs with Bay Area companies, in the fields of publishing, litigation law and engineering. They also will be working with Chico State professors Patricia Black and Rick Vertolli.

Vertolli, a lecturer in applied computer graphics, will be helping students create visual tools using animation and computer graphics. “There’s nothing else like this,” he said. “With the international element, it’s a very unique approach.”

The collaboration between departments is also positive, added Vertolli. “This can allow us to branch out in ways we never thought of before,” he said.

Black, chair of the Department of Foreign Language and Literatures, will be working with students on French language. Students will emerge with fluency in either French or German and a working knowledge in the other language. However, all lessons will be taught in English. They also will learn about culturally different perceptions among German and French people.

Twelve students each year—six U.S. students, three French and three German—will be enrolled in the two-year program. It’s set up to have equal numbers of U.S. and European students.

Some researchers have already caught on through Facebook, Schwartz said. Industry partners, including Xerox and local attorney Larry Puritz, have signed on to participate through either working with students in the program or contributing financially to the program. In the next few years, Schwartz hopes to make the program financially self-sufficient through industry partnerships. Contributions will need to exceed $110,000 per year on each side of the Atlantic to allow the program to function without grant funds.

As for Chico, Schwartz is certain that the program will benefit from the local learning environment. “There’s not a lot of distraction in Chico, and it’s a small town, so you can work closely,” he said. Proximity to Sacramento and the Bay Area makes Chico attractive for the program. “Chico is a great place to mentor and develop good, professional relationships,” he said.