When Deb Crawford, George Mason University’s vice president for research, innovation, and economic impact, 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 computing subjects such as computer science , information technology , and cybersecurity —substantially more than any other Virginia public university. Mason also enrolls the largest number of graduate students in computing fields.
The university’s computing programs will only become more important as Northern Virginia welcomes Amazon’s newest headquarters, HQ2, to the region.
Virginia is already ranked third as the state with the highest concentration of tech workers in the country by Cyberstates.org , and the arrival of Amazon promises to add 25,000 more jobs by 2030.
Amazon’s decision is expected to pique student interest in computing majors, and the university projects it will enroll as many as 10,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students in computing-related degree programs by 2024.
In addition, Mason plans to build on its online presence, allowing working adults the opportunity to complete a college degree or digital credential while also keeping degrees accessible and affordable to community college students who transfer to Mason through programs like the ADVANCE partnership  with Northern Virginia Community College.
Liza Wilson Durant knows a thing or two about Mason’s effort to expand computing and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. For the past several years, the associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at the Volgenau School of Engineering  has helped prepare students for high-demand jobs in Northern Virginia’s bustling technology industry. So it made sense that she was at the center of Mason’s pitch to help bring Amazon to Northern Virginia.
During a November 2018 panel discussion on National Public Radio’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show about the Amazon selection, Durant spoke at length about how Mason is well positioned to serve Amazon and other tech employers.
“Mason has been working for the past decade, and the past six years in earnest, to really deliver on the tremendous tech demand of the flourishing tech economy of Northern Virginia,” she says. “We’re 8,000-strong in our engineering school; 5,000 in computing. So, for us, it was the right time, the right place.”
“We’ve been attracting students—particularly to computing and engineering—because of the tremendous partnerships we’ve had with industry in Northern Virginia,” says Durant. “I like to believe that we have incredibly well-trained students who are really prepared to meet the demands specifically dictated and designed by the companies that hire them. I think we’re ready.”
Preparing Students for Workforce
Mason has already begun adding new programs in computing and related fields. Earlier this year, Mason launched a digital certification program, which ensures that all students—regardless of their major—can develop the digital skills needed to compete in today’s technology-driven economy while creating a broader talent pipeline for employers throughout the region.
The new digital technology credential  is being championed by the Greater Washington Partnership (GWP), a consortium of 12 universities and leading companies in the region. The curriculum, set according to standards defined by employers from across the region, allows undergraduates to develop the needed skills in data analytics, data visualization, and cybersecurity. The plan for the credential, which merges the humanities and social sciences fields with computer science, could become a national model for regional collaboration between universities and businesses.
Durant says she’s been pleasantly surprised by how many humanities majors have already signed up. She envisions others soon following suit.
“Companies realize that people who can write and speak and who understand cultural context and policy are vital to [their] success,” says Durant. “They see the need for students with this knowledge. But if [the students] can’t work around an Excel spreadsheet, or if they can’t analyze data, [companies] can’t effectively employ them. So, we’re on the right track here by merging these two concepts.”
Mason was well equipped to meet the specific standards that regional employers were seeking. The Department of Statistics  within the Volgenau School of Engineering already offers a data analysis minor and needed only to add a cybersecurity element to one of the five mandatory classes necessary for eligibility for a generalist credential.
Because it had many of the necessary elements in place, Mason was the first of the participating regional universities to award the credential. Mike Fasil, BS Information Systems and Operations Management ’19, was the first student to earn the credential in May.
Currently, there are 10 Mason students enrolled in the program, and roughly 200 are enrolled in the data analysis minor.
Virginia Commonwealth University has also launched the program, and American University, the University of Richmond, and Virginia Tech will launch their programs this fall.
Future plans include making the generalist credential available online for working professionals seeking contemporary skills, and building out a specialist credential for students who already have an extensive background in engineering and computer science.
“I think this approach is unique, it’s new, and I think it’s going to be very popular,” Durant says.
Working—and Teaching—in the Cloud
Mason is also working on a new bachelor’s degree program in cloud computing with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS).
A new bachelor of applied science pathway in cloud computing will provide seamless transfer from a two-year associate’s degree to a four-year bachelor’s degree in cloud computing. The ADVANCE pathway will launch in fall 2020.
“This new pathway demonstrates our commitment to creating both educational and employment access,” says Michelle Marks, vice president of academic innovation and new ventures. “These students will be prepared to compete for our region’s most in-demand jobs.”
NOVA and Mason faculty worked in unison with AWS Educate curriculum designers to create a path that will help students pursue careers in cloud architecture, cybersecurity, software development, and DevOps, a system of software development and delivery. All students in the program will receive membership in the AWS Educate program and gain hands-on, real-world experience with leading cloud technology and tools.
“Developing a cloud-ready workforce is an urgent challenge and an incredible opportunity,” says Teresa Carlson, vice president for AWS’s Worldwide Public Sector. “Both George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College have been global pioneers in developing cloud curricula for students. We are delighted to be working with these innovative institutions to turn the growing demand for cloud skills into pathways in technology for students from all backgrounds.”
A New School, a New Building, and an Innovation District
“We expect Amazon’s new headquarters will attract other high-tech companies and new ventures to the region,” says Crawford. “These companies will want to access the concentration of tech talent in Northern Virginia.”
To support that talent pipeline, Mason is launching its School of Computing. The first of its kind in Virginia, the school will take a broad, multidisciplinary view of computing and foster collaborations across the university’s campuses to advance computing and its application in fields ranging from government and business, to education and health care.
“The goal is to highlight the strategic importance of computing not only in majors such as computer science and information science,” says Crawford, “but in disciplines being transformed by computational techniques, such as biochemistry, marketing, health administration, and the humanities.”
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. IDIA will be the center of innovation in Arlington, housing more than 1,200 entrepreneurs, researchers, and business leaders on the bustling Ballston-Rosslyn corridor.
The institute will be located in a new 400,000-square-foot building planned for the university’s Arlington Campus, which will take the place of the Original Building, the former Kann’s Department store Mason acquired in the early 1970s.
“This new Institute for Digital InnovAtion will bring together Mason’s diverse faculty and student community with partners in the public and private sectors,” says Crawford. “Together, they will learn, create, ideate, and innovate, helping to strengthen Northern Virginia’s reputation as a global center for innovation in computing.”
The institute will anchor the new innovation district under development in Arlington’s Virginia Square neighborhood. Led by Mason in partnership with numerous public- and private-sector organizations, the Innovation@Virginia Square initiative will engage and empower a diverse community of Arlington entrepreneurs to strengthen the commonwealth’s innovation economy.
“Mason’s role has always been to create a pipeline for talent and innovation that serves the region,” says Provost and Executive Vice President S. David Wu. “[These programs] will help attract some of our most promising students and prepare them for success in the innovation economy.”
Damian Cristodero, John Hollis, Mike Sandler, and Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA ’95, contributed to this story.