A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Game Changers

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty on November 1, 2010

It’s been a long time coming. Traditional, siloed modes of learning are down to their last life before it’s “game over.” To survive in this competitive workforce, students must not only know their chosen discipline, but also understand how to work with those from different academic backgrounds.

Interdisciplinary studies. It’s something that’s been woven into the fabric of George Mason University. From the founding of New Century College and the start of the Robinson Professors program, Mason’s leaders have long known that collaborating across sectors is key to keeping up with trends in the workforce.

In the computer age, new disciplines are being born: computer game design, bioengineering, neuroscience. These new fields require learning about more than one subject. Or, to paraphrase the great (fictional) Dr. Jack Shephard of the TV series Lost, “If we can’t work together, then we’re gonna die alone.”

But Mason is responding to this need with several new programs that are interdisciplinary by design. These collaborative programs address the changing needs of the workplace and create well-rounded graduates by breathing new life into the structure of the traditional undergraduate program.

From creating video games to building new prosthetic limbs, Mason students will be well-prepared to live and, indeed, thrive in their chosen careers. In other words, game on.

Playing Games to Get Ahead

Game design major Alec Fisher-Laskey goes over his project with faculty member Matt Nolan.

A lot goes on behind the scenes of your favorite video game. Developing one takes technical skills, such as programming, and creative skills, such as design. Mason recognized that there aren’t a lot of programs that bridge the gap between these two arenas, and the computer game design degree program was born—the first of its kind in Virginia.

Housed in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA), the bachelor of fine arts degree program marries left-brained engineering to right-brained art. To this end, students take several classes within the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering. And, believe it or not, it seems to be a good match.

“The game industry is a large and growing worldwide business that requires specialized skills and training,” says Alec Fisher-Laskey, a senior game design student. “The program offers tools, advice, experience, contacts, and exposure that would be impossible to get on your own.”

Now in its second full year, the game design program is booming. About 600 students are participating in the program by majoring, minoring, or just taking classes in computer game design.

And just where will all these graduates work after commencement? Scott Martin, director of the program and assistant dean of technology and research in CVPA, says the need for serious game designers is huge. “Serious game” might seem to be an oxymoron, but it’s a growth area for those interested in computer game design.

Martin says there are many job opportunities for game designers with government contractors and private-sector companies who land bids to create so-called “serious” computer games. These games are used for training and education—even the Department of Housing and Urban Development has funding for such games, says Martin.

Martin also worked with several industry leaders and the International Game Design Association to ensure the program would develop designers who are the whole package—artists with a technical background. In fact, students in the program must take calculus and college-level physics.

“This field requires the aptitude of a scientist and the creativity of an artist,” says Martin, “and that’s what this program provides.”

Discovering the Next Pacemaker

In the lab of their Bioinstrumentation by Design course, Mason students Michael Kane and Fiona Lu work with small voice-controlled robots and cars.

How does engineering intersect with biology? Just look around a hospital and you’ll find several examples of what the emerging field of bioengineering has contributed to modern medicine—emphasis on the modern—from dialysis machines to artificial limbs.

Beginning this fall, students at Mason will be able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering. Although the field is considered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States, Mason’s undergraduate bioengineering program is the only such program in Northern Virginia.

The emerging field of bioengineering applies the tools of engineering to solve problems in the realm of biology and medicine. And while Mason’s program will emphasize engineering, graduates will leave with a background in the fundamentals of biology and physiology.

“Bioengineering is all about using technology to help people overcome disease, ease pain, and improve quality of life,” says Joseph Pancrazio, director of the program and professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Our students will have the opportunity to be part of this, and, whether they discover the next pacemaker or biomarker, they will have affected the lives of people in need of these technologies.”

Indeed, current Mason students are already participating in bioengineering projects. For a senior design project, Tony Nguyen and his partners are inputting biological data (such as eye movement and muscle movements) to coordinate the motion of a robotic arm, which could help amputees with such basic tasks as picking up a coffee mug.

While Nguyen is technically a part of the bioengineering program’s precursor, the bioengineering concentration in Mason’s electrical and computer engineering degree, he sees the benefit in this new program.

“Medicine and engineering are both vital to society,” says Nguyen, who plans to go to medical school. “In reality, as the years go by, medicine and engineering will become more and more inseparable.”

Nguyen adds that technologies developed by bioengineers will make diagnosing and treating diseases more efficient, “ultimately reducing health care costs.”

Tackling the Climate Change Issue

Andrew Wingfield (right), director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program, leads the Mason Pond clean-up during Earth Week each year.

Going green at Mason is not a new concept. From building only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings to starting an Office of Sustainability, environmental issues have been on the minds of Mason’s administrators and faculty members for some time.

But what is new is the bachelor’s degree in environmental and sustainability studies, a joint program from Mason’s New Century College (NCC) and College of Science’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy.

So-called “green” jobs are on the rise, especially in the Washington, D.C., area, where federal funding is creating new jobs in the environmental and sustainability sector.

Born from a minor that began last fall, the environmental and sustainability studies program seeks to prepare its graduates for these green jobs. Students in the program elect one of four concentrations: climate change and society, environmental economics, environmental policy and politics, or equity and environmental justice.

“The synergistic effect we have from combining faculty expertise from the two colleges covers the spectrum of global issues related to the environment and sustainability,” says Nance Lucas, associate dean for NCC.

A big push of the program is taking advantage of Mason’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and its current partnerships with organizations such as the Smithsonian Institute’s National Zoological Park, Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, and Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center at Belmont Bay.

Students in the program are required to earn experiential learning credits through service learning and field studies, says Andrew Wingfield, MFA ’99, director of the program. In addition, students may also take internships, research work, or even study-abroad trips for credit.

Anthony Rabbani, a senior who is minoring in sustainability studies, has taken advantage of several different field studies and internships through the program. He monitored energy usage of an administrative building on campus, helped start an organic garden that produces vegetables used in a campus dining facility, and managed bee apiaries on the Piedmont field station.

“The service learning component allows students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world,” Rabbani says.

Creating New Treatments for Alzheimer’s

In 1906, the winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, said, “The brain is a world consisting of a number of unexplored continents and great stretches of unknown territory.”

More than a century later, the brain is still a mystery. Yet neuroscientists are making strides toward understanding the brain and the nervous system and thereby tackling such diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Neuroscience seems straightforward enough: it’s the study of the brain and nervous system. But it takes a lot of different disciplines—biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology—to get the full picture.

Launched in fall 2006, Mason’s bachelor of science in neuroscience prepares students for work in the neuroscience field, medical school, or other graduate study. It’s a collaborative effort between the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Science. Students in the doctoral program also team with the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

“Neuroscience is a new and a growing field, and students are excited about it,” says Jane Flinn, program director and associate professor of psychology. “It bridges a lot of other disciplines, so graduates can work with anything from drugs to computers,” she says.

More than 100 students are enrolled in the program. On graduating, they are qualified to work as research assistants at university labs, pharmaceutical companies, or such research organizations as the National Institutes of Health.

Those enrolled gain a broad understanding of biological systems and then delve into high-level neurology classes. Faculty in the program come from a range of fields, including psychology, molecular neuroscience, molecular biology and microbiology, electrical engineering, physics, and computational biology and bioinformatics.

“A lot of entering students choose neuroscience because it mixes all the core sciences with the newest neuroscience topics from the research field,” says Caitlin Groeber, a doctoral student in the biopsychology program and a student advisor for the bachelor program. “We take little bits of all the sciences and put them together in a comprehensive degree program.”

Marjorie Musick contributed to this story.

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