George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Data Analytics Engineering degree requires steering students through a changing field

July 16, 2019   /   by Nanci Hellmich

“I have been involved in big data for more than a decade. What I like about it is seeing how a large amount of data can be applied to solving problems. What’s hidden in the data is what fascinates me.”

— James Baldo, director of the Data Analytics Engineering Program

James Baldo, director of the Data Analytics Engineering Graduate Program, says many companies can't fill their data analytics positions fast enough.

James Baldo sees similarities in the challenges of kayaking and the challenges of directing Mason Engineering’s Data Analytics Engineering Graduate Program.

“On the boat, I make a plan and watch the currents. With our master's degree program, we have to make sure our courses meet students’ needs, and that changes all the time, just like the current,” says Baldo, PhD Information Technology ’98.

He’s at the helm of the most popular master’s degree program in the Volgenau School of Engineering with 447 students enrolled in it during the spring 2019 semester. Another 30 students are in the online version of the degree, and 15 are studying for a graduate certificate in data analytics.

In 2014, Mason became one of only five universities in the nation to offer a Data Analytics Engineering master's degree program in response to the high demand for data scientists and analysts who understand the technologies and methodologies involved in data-driven decision-making.

 “Many companies can’t fill their data analytics positions fast enough, so they are sending their employees back to school,” Baldo says. Graduates often command six-figure salaries.

Mason has become a driving force in data analytics, says Robert Osgood, the first director of the program and an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering. “Students from around the world come to Mason to further enhance their careers.”

Baldo took over in September of 2018 after working as a practicing engineer for 36 years and an adjunct professor at Mason for 18 years. He still works one day a week as a senior associate at Armatus Solutions, providing data analytics, cloud migration, and solution architecture support to government agencies. 

“I have been involved in big data for more than a decade,” he says. “What I like about it is seeing how a large amount of data can be applied to solving problems. What’s hidden in the data is what fascinates me.”

Osgood says Baldo “has taken a good program and has made it better through his years of experience in data analytics and his understanding of where the industry is going.”

Students in the data analytics engineering master’s program must take four foundational courses that cover big data, modeling, computer science, and statistical analysis, classes that are offered through the departments of Information Sciences and Technology, Systems Engineering and Operations Research, Computer Science, and Statistics.

Prospective students, who should have some background in programming, calculus, and statistics, can specialize in one area or create a customized concentration in another field, such as healthcare, predictive analytics, internet of things, business analytics, financial engineering, and data mining. “We want to keep the program flexible,” Baldo says.

Hugh Miller, academic program coordinator for Data Analytics Engineering, says flexibility has been crucial to the program’s success. “The wealth of courses offered in the program speaks to the multi-disciplinary nature of data analytics and the strength of the curriculum offered by departments in the Volgenau School of Engineering,” he says.

Those who are the most successful are often highly motivated problem solvers, Baldo says. “They view data analytics as a new dimension, a new way of solving problems and answering questions.”

He plans to steer the program to focus more on natural language processing and imaging analysis. Eventually, he’d like to offer free workshops to help alumni stay on top of this evolving field.

“One important lesson that I learned from kayaking is that navigating and maneuvering is constantly changing and this provides both new experiences and challenges, he says. “I believe that our alumni will experience a similar situation as they practice providing solutions based on their skills and acquire new skills to meet the new challenges.”

"Mason has become a driving force in data analytics. Students from around the world come to Mason to further enhance their careers.”

— Robert Osgood, the first director of the program and an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering.

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