Computer science, broadly applied

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George Mason University’s long history of being a leader in computer science (CS) is amplified by its innovative applied computer science (ACS) program. Students in ACS learn CS while gaining knowledge in a second discipline that increasingly incorporates advanced computing. Students earning an ACS concentration are particularly qualified to apply their computing knowledge in fields from business to the humanities and more.  

ACS has been at Mason since 2004, embedded in the College of Engineering and Computing as a major in the Computer Science Department, and concentrations currently available include business management, business marketing, computer game design, geoinformatics, software engineering, and technology policy. 

Liz White, an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Computer Science said, “For a long time we had four (concentrations) and it was new and different and nobody else was doing it. And then about the time the pandemic happened, we started thinking we really need to push these and create more.”

In ACS students take core CS classes—which mirror the CS bachelor’s core—and then a series of other classes that gives them skills in a focused area. The idea being that the concentration will help students land coveted jobs.

A more well-rounded student, boosted with ever-in-demand technology skills and thus more marketable, is the ultimate product. As White said, “The idea is we're taking our core group of CS students and letting them take a broader swath of courses across the university.”

Mark Snyder, an associate chair in the department, said, “It’s not that regular computer science students couldn't get some of those same jobs, but to actually have extra training in a particular area is more targeted. In computer game design, for example, there are very specific roles when you go into that industry where you need certain kinds of programmers.”

The concentration does not require extra time toward degree. Snyder said, “As a bachelor's degree inside of 120 credits to really get equal weighting to both the computer science core, which is around 40 credits, and then the concentration, which is another 40 credits or so, it really is putting them on equal footing.”  By comparison, White added, a double major would require much more than 120 credits.

Creating these programs often requires coordination with other colleges. The ACS in technology policy, for example, is done with the Schar School of Policy and Government. And very recently an ACS in linguistics was approved—to be taken on in concert with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences—as well as four related programs offering intelligence analysis in Russian studies, Chinese studies, Korean studies, and Middle Eastern studies.

White says that the burgeoning AI field may be up next. “Students are asking what we have because they want something that says ‘AI’ on their transcript, so we’re starting those discussions.” Certain topics not obviously connected to computer science have been discussed; faculty interest has prompted talks on a potential ACS in music technology, for example.