Business Matters

Leading the commonwealth in computing

Mason has more undergraduate and master’s students in the core computing programs than any of Virginia’s public universities, one of the reasons Amazon will create a headquarters in Northern Virginia. Deb Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research, said the university’s planned School of Computing will highlight the integration of computing across disciplines. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

When Deb Crawford, George Mason University’s vice president for research, assembled the data for the state’s pitch to bring Amazon to Northern Virginia, the numbers were eye-opening.

Mason has nearly 5,000 undergraduate students majoring in computer science, computer engineering, information technology, information systems and operations management, cybersecurity and systems engineering—substantially more than Virginia’s other public universities. Mason also leads in master’s students with more than 1,100 enrolled in those disciplines. Including other computing-intensive fields, such as data sciences and game design, pushes the number up even higher.

Mason’s leadership in incorporating the power of computing across disciplines will only increase as Northern Virginia, which will welcome Amazon’s newest headquarters in National Landing, becomes a global leader in the digital innovation economy.

Mason projects it will have more than 10,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students enrolled in computing-related degree programs by 2024.

“We expect Amazon’s new headquarters will attract other high-tech companies and new ventures to the region,” Crawford said. “These companies will want to access the concentration of tech talent in the region.”

To support that talent pipeline, Mason will launch its School of Computing in 2019, the first such school in Virginia. A new multidisciplinary Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA) will harness Mason’s faculty and student communities to advance research and grow the digital innovation economy. A new 400,000-square-foot building on Mason’s Arlington Campus will be a hub for graduate education and research, and a home for industry and community partners.

The university also plans to add about 450 faculty to the expanding programs during the next six years.

Crawford spoke from her Merten Hall office on the Fairfax Campus about the initiatives.

When will School of Computing programs be available?

The plan is for the fall of 2019. We’ll also have School of Computing activities on the Science and Technology Campus and in Fairfax, where most of our undergraduate programs will continue to reside. The new Arlington building will house largely graduate programs and a lot of our research.

What steps need to be taken to meet that timetable?

[Provost] David Wu has charged two working groups with faculty from across our colleges and schools. One group will look at defining the vision and mission of the School of Computing and its programs. The other will work at defining the Institute for Digital InnovAtion and identifying activities that will be housed in the new building. Those groups will make recommendations to President [Ángel] Cabrera and Provost Wu toward the end of the spring semester, and we’ll share these recommendations with the university community to get feedback prior to implementation.

What do you want the School of Computing to accomplish?

It will take a broad multidisciplinary view. The goal is to highlight the strategic importance of computing not only in majors such as computer and information science but also in disciplines being transformed by computational techniques, such as biochemistry, marketing, health administration, public policy and the humanities.

The new building on Arlington Campus is further down the road, correct?

Yes, it will stand on the site of an old department store on campus that will be replaced with a new building, 10 stories or more, by 2023 or [20]24.  We also want a strong connectivity between the new building and its programs and the graduate and research programs in Vernon Smith Hall, Founders Hall and Hazel Hall. Our expanded campus should also support strong relationships with our industry, government and community partners.

How will that work?

We talk about it being a mixed-use space, so you can imagine small-business incubator and accelerator spaces. You can imagine other companies who want to have a presence in the greater Washington region and who have an interest in tech. The building will support young companies, as well as others, who want to tap into talent and other assets in the region.

What is the significance of housing these new initiatives in Arlington, Virginia?

With Amazon’s arrival, it was obvious the graduate programs in the School of Computing and the programs of the new Institute for Digital InnovAtion should be housed there. But we also believe that responsible, sustained growth of the digital innovation economy demands advances in computing, business, law and public policy. Since the Arlington Campus houses the graduate programs of our Schar School of Policy and Government, the Scalia Law School and our School of Business, we can provide multidisciplinary opportunities and experiences to students there.

That said, computing programs won’t be confined to the Arlington Campus, correct?

The new building will probably host 25 to 30 percent of the School of Computing’s activities. We’ll also support activities at [the] Science and Technology [Campus] and at the Fairfax [Campus], where most of our undergraduate programs will continue to reside. Since our School of Computing will take a broad multidisciplinary view, it is critical that it stay connected with the rest of the university.