A layered understanding of human growth and change

Program highlights: Aging and health, Cognitive development, Human neuroscience, Law and human development, Social and personality development


Human Development (HD) is a multidisciplinary field that provides depth in the behavioral sciences while exploring the social, cultural, biological, cognitive, and psychological processes and mechanisms of development of humans across the life course. This approach incorporates psychology, sociology, neuroscience, biology, history, anthropology, and economics to create a layered understanding of growth and change.

HD majors learn about barriers and challenges to health, well-being, the ability to function well, and living a satisfying life, as well as evidence-based interventions that address each of these. Translating ideas effectively across disciplines and research into practice, programs, and policy are additional learning outcomes.

Courses cover a range of issues and emphasize translational research and community engagement; the role of social, cultural, and environmental factors (e.g., schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods); decision-making in context (e.g., legal settings); and the influence that developing humans have on their environment. HD students gain a strong foundation in empirical research methods and statistics and approach their disciplines from a scientific perspective.

Our HD students are curious, open-minded, equity-oriented individuals who are excited to develop their critical and analytical thinking skills, as well as their ability to gain insight from empirical research and people’s lived experiences.

The HD major is offered through the College of Human Ecology, though it is a part of the cross-college Psychology department. Those interested in Human Development must apply directly to the College of Human Ecology.

Review our curriculum sheets (updated each year) to better understand how the major is organized.

Introduction to Human Development (HD 1130) provides a broad and foundational overview of field of human development, starting from conception and ending through the process of death and dying. The biological beginnings of life and prenatal development will serve as the start of the discussion of human development, followed by an exploration of physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development at each subsequent stage of the lifespan (e.g., infancy, early childhood, middle & late childhood, etc.). Discussion will highlight major research findings and their real-world application.

Introduction to Community Psychology (HD 2400) asks “what counts as a community?” How do communities shape who we are? How can we engage in action to transform the communities we are a part of? Community psychology is a field examining the interrelationship between individual wellbeing and the multiple social structures and contexts with which individuals interact. Community psychologists are united by a shared commitment to understanding individuals using a multidisciplinary perspective, including developmental psychology, education, and sociology. Community psychologists also emphasize values, applied and participatory research, and action to promote the wellbeing of entire communities from a strengths-based perspective. We will discuss the role of communities in shaping our understandings of diversity, equity, and social justice.

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (HD 3210) explores how our adult selves come to be through the lens of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. Student will learn about current perspectives and controversies, the latest understanding of the development of multiple physiological systems (e.g., vision, perception, language, etc.) as interactions between molecular mechanisms, experience, and neural plasticity. Assignments, exams, and class exercises will all be geared towards developing an understanding of the issues in developmental cognitive neuroscience as a field.

Stress, Emotion, and Health (HD 4240) offers opportunities for students to develop new ways to integrate theory and research on stress and health with the advances in the science of affect and emotion. Students attend a weekly lab meeting, read pertinent papers, write reaction responses, and work in the laboratory completing tasks that contribute to ongoing research studies.

Participating in engaged learning opportunities brings Human Development classroom learning to life and allows students to observe lives in context unfolding in real time. Through community engagements, students develop skills to work in partnership with community organizations and agencies.

Students may study abroad, complete off-campus study, or participate in internships or field placements.

Field Placements

In addition to study-away programs, Human Development majors can arrange field placements in local agencies and institutions. Recent placements have included projects with Tompkins County Office of Aging; Tompkins County Human Service Coalition; Tompkins County Youth Bureau; Kendal of Ithaca; and local schools.

Internship Examples

Corporate Consumer & General Management Summer Analyst, JPMorgan & Chase Advancing Hispanic and Latino Fellowship Program
Legal Intern, The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office
Research Assistant, Columbia University Department of Neurology
Research Intern, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals
Resource Navigator, Cayuga Medical Center/Cornell Cooperative Extension
Shadowing, Dermatology Physician’s Assistant 
Summer Camp Director, Gallup Day Camp

The department’s faculty research provides an ecological view of human development across the life span to answer questions of real-world relevance. Basic and translational research are integrated to enhance development and well-being in diverse contexts and populations. The research is characterized by themes of interdisciplinarity, cultural diversity, and multiple approaches, methods, and levels of analysis.

Undergraduates are active in the development, implementation, and analysis of research inquiries as participants on faculty research teams, as well as through independent research projects.

Research examples

  • Early development of spatial skills, the acquisition of spatial language, and links and causal relations across these two domains
  • Epidemiology of elder mistreatment
  • Growth mindset, free will and future thinking
  • Healthcare decision-making
  • Intersection of purpose/identity processes and psychopathology
  • Neurobiological basis of personality
  • Risk-taking during adolescence
  • Whether the gender of a perpetrator of a crime affects the levels empathy from jurors

Honors program

The Honors Program is designed to give talented Human Development undergraduates the opportunity to formulate and carry out an independent research investigation under the supervision of a member of HD departmental faculty. The program provides excellent preparation for graduate work in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, medicine and related fields. Students apply to the Honors Program during their junior year.

Many career fields require a fundamental understanding of human beings making HD a strong asset for students across the breadth of post-graduate goals.

HD students have diverse interests and career trajectories including working with people across the lifespan (education, pediatrics, child clinical psychology, gerontology, social work, etc.) or pursuing careers in business, research, or policy.

Others go on to graduate programs in psychology, human development, or a related field, as well as professional programs in health-related fields (including medicine, dentistry, nursing) or law.

One-year Master’s Degree

Human Development offers a one-year master’s degree that can be treated as an extension of a four-year undergraduate degree or that can stand alone. The goal of the one-year master’s program is to provide an opportunity for qualified students to gain additional research experience and increase credentials for application to a Ph.D. or other advanced degree program where knowledge of Human Development may be helpful.

Sample Career Paths

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Attorney, Fitzmaurice & Freeman
Business Analyst, Deloitte Consulting
Communications Adviser, DKT Indonesia
Health Policy Analyst, Department of Health and Human Services
Physician, Winthrop University Hospital
Psychologist and Coordinator of Family Support Service Programs, Metropolitan Hospital Center
Researcher, National Institutes of Health
Senior Scientist, Braceland Center for Mental Health and Aging