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Mason’s Rosenthal Earns Acclaim for New Book

 

Dr. Aharona Rosenthal, an adjunct professor teaching Hebrew for 4-VA@Mason Shared Courses has recently released her third book and first historical fiction novel to much acclaim.  Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again has been lauded by the Literary Titans for Best Memoir, earned the Penn Craft Best Historical Fiction Award, was recognized by the International Firebird as the best book on the Holocaust, awarded five stars by The Readers Favorite, and nominated for an Outstanding Creator Award. Rosenthal’s recent interview by Romanian radio show Universul la feminin with Serena Adler generated listener praise for the book detailing her Jewish Romanian family and their lives prior to World War II.

Researched and written over a 12-year period by Rosenthal, Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again is based on her family’s genealogical papers as well as exhaustive document examination from around the world. It follows the story of Rosenthal’s grandmother’s cousin Friddie Stoleru, who was falsely charged with treason and spent the 1930s in prison and forced labor camps. The book recounts the lives of her family members during a time in Europe when discrimination and the persecution of Jewish people was at its peak.

For Rosenthal, the book was a response to her father’s hand-penned request for his daughter to ‘tell the truth’ about the lives of their ancestors. “The response to the book has been tremendous — it has opened a floodgate of people sharing their own family stories,” says Rosenthal.  “For years, these narratives were buried deep.  It was not uncommon that families did not speak of the abuse for generations due to listening devices which were monitored by the Communist Party. Many atrocities have remained a secret.  Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again has prompted so many to reach out and tell their truth.  I’m honored to have given a voice to so many that were silenced.” Rosenthal expects that sentiment to be heightened following the upcoming publication of her interview with reporter Livius Denis Grigorescu in the leading Romanian newspaper Adevarul.

 

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It’s a Dirty Job. But Someone has to do it. Team Van Aken Did.

Environmental engineers, local governments, and public policy leaders confront numerous challenges commonly faced at wastewater treatment facilities – increased usage, managing ebbs and flows (known as feast and famine in the industry) and often older, less effective sedimentation tanks — usually set near a watershed which limits space for additional construction.  Facing these constraints, molecular biologist and Mason Associate Professor Benoit Van Aken wanted to create a team to look carefully at how the use of a newer procedure, the use of aerobic granulation to speed sedimentation, might increase the effectiveness of these plants. When Van Aken learned about the 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants, it spurred him to seek funding which could bring his plan to fruition.

The grant could, Van Aken posited, build a connection between the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC) in Woodbridge, where Van Aken’s lab is located, and the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Laboratory (OWML) in Manassas where the lab of Dr. Zhiwu (Drew) Wang, of Virginia Tech, is located.  Wang’s research focuses on biological engineering for wastewater treatment and the two centers could create a partnership as the OWML is responsible for management of water quality in the Occoquan watershed and the PEREC, located a few miles from the Occoquan Reservoir, is engaged in restoration of Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Wang’s lab is equipped with pilot reactors and could generate bacterial material for the molecular analyses. Van Aken’s lab is equipped for DNA/RNA extraction and analysis, and sequencing library preparation, which could provide the tools to help understand the microbiology and functions of microbial communities developing in wastewater treatment systems.

Importantly, the two labs are located within an easy distance of the Prince William County wastewater treatment facility in Centreville, making it easy for the team to access sludge samples to for the research.

With the 4-VA@Mason grant secured, Van Aken got to work with his team.  Trips were made to the Centreville plant to obtain batches of aerobic granules.  Van Aken initially gave some of the sequencing studies to undergraduate students, but then hired Alison Gomeiz, a chemistry student studying for her master’s degree.  Van Aken met (via Zoom during the pandemic) with Gomeiz regularly to review her tests and consulted with partner Wang frequently to get his input on the testing.  Their goal was to assess what changes in the microbial community composition in aerobic granules compared to conventional microbial flocs.

Van Aken explains, “For more than a century, wastewater treatment has been based on bacterial cells or small cell aggregates dispersed in wastewater — activated sludge. Aerobic granulation exploits the capability of bacterial cells to co-aggregate into large, dense, spherical granules, which present remarkable advantages over dispersed cells for wastewater treatment, which can speed sedimentation and the removal of the biomass from the bottom of the tank.”

Because aerobic granulation has been successfully applied only in sequential batch reactors (SBRs), while most wastewater treatment plants operate in continuous flow reactors (CFRs), it was important to assess what changes happened in both the feast and famine conditions. Aerobic granulation is estimated to have to potential to reduce energy consumption in wastewater treatment by more than 60%.

Essentially, the team identified the changes associated with aerobic granulation.  This provided the ability to predict the functionality of bacteria in the new reactor system that facilitated the aerobic granulation process.  “There is a time where the bacteria received the hard water, that’s the feast conditions, where it receives a lot of nutrients. And we also studied the water when there is not much nutrient available — the famine phase,” says Van Aken.  “We were able to predict when we can reduce the retention time, that means the time it needs for the particle to settle down at the bottom of the tank. That’s a big advantage.”

Their work has already been disseminated in an article for Science Direct however, Van Aken says there is more work to be done. Thanks to the new relationship with the Wang lab, there many more opportunities ahead for this collaborative work.

Benoit Van Aken, Mason
Zhiwu (Drew) Wang, Virginia Tech

 

 

 

 

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Calls for Proposals: 4-VA@Mason 2023-24 Collaborative Research Grants

 

Mason faculty interested in piloting a novel research project in conjunction with colleagues at one of the seven other 4-VA schools in Virginia are encouraged to respond to the annual 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grants (CRG) calls for proposals.  These grants, of up to $20,000, are designed to facilitate and support alliances which leverage the strengths of each partner university to improve efficiencies in research and higher education, reduce working in silos, and provide hands-on experiential opportunities for students. The grants encourage the development of baseline research projects in the sciences and humanities which could help fuel future research and funding.

The application link for the proposals is posted on the 4-VA@Mason grants page, which includes associated policies and procedures, as well as examples previous successful proposals.  Applications will be accepted through February 28, 2023, with funding available July 1, 2023.

“Although the 4-VA mission to identify and boost efficiencies in educational design and research was launched in 2010, it is our Collaborative Research Grants — introduced in 2013 — that have really made a difference for Mason and our partner schools,” explains Janette Kenner Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason. “So many of our awarded pilot research projects have provided a springboard for subsequent, major federal and private grants and boosted research competitiveness at Mason and throughout the collaborative.” Those schools are the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.  In some cases, additional modest funding is available to co-PIs at the partner schools.

“Through the hundreds of 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants awarded throughout the state in the last ten years, 4-VA has truly made a difference for faculty, students and citizens statewide and beyond,” adds Muir.

 

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New Lab for Writing and Communication Launched with 4-VA@Mason Catalyst Funds

Even before Mason’s new, bright, and spacious Lab for Writing and Communications held its formal grand opening recently in the Johnson Center, the Lab was already a success.  Writing Center Director Susan Lawrence explained that soon after they finished the last coat of paint on their 20 individual consulting and training rooms, the Lab has been essentially booked solid with students looking for help with myriad writing and communication projects.  “We are busy every hour we’re open,” says Lawrence.

The Lab has been six years in the making — built with the thought of combining what was the previously separate Comm Center and Writing Center. The Communication Center primarily focuses on helping students with speeches and oral presentations and the Writing Center focuses on written projects.

While the result is a winner, the path to its completion included a series of important steps forward, helped in part by 4-VA@Mason.  As Melissa Broeckelman-Post, professor and basic course director of the Communication Department explained to 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator and Vice Provost Academic Affairs Janette Muir at the grand opening, “Without a doubt, 4-VA@Mason can and should take credit for helping get this to the finish line.”

The first step in support of the effort started in 2017-2018 when 4-VA@Mason awarded Broeckelman-Post with a Collaborative Research Grant to undertake a complete redesign of Mason’s COMM 100 and 101 courses, which were facing three challenges: increasing enrollment warranting a cadre of new instructors, reductions in teaching space, and needed revisions in course structure.  The grant provided funds for a serious critical analysis of this important Mason Core course and produced an efficient and effective course redesign.  Moreover, the redesign created cost savings which helped introduce individualized coaching sessions in the then “new” Communication Center where students could meet with student communication coaches to get feedback on outlines, video record and practice presentations, practice interviews, and work on developing group presentations.

The second 4-VA@Mason contribution came in the 2019-2020 academic year, when Brockelman-Post received a second grant for her proposal entitled “Communication Across the Curriculum: Creating Faculty Resources for Building Communication Skills in the Discipline.”  This project resulted in the creation of a robust set of resources to support faculty and student learning, including online tools, individual and small group faculty curriculum consultations, and in-class workshop resources to encourage faculty to embed communication skills development within their disciplinary courses.

Photo: John Boal

The most recent 4-VA@Mason assist, currently underway, is to support a thorough, multi-faceted research study across communication centers at three 4-VA universities – Mason, JMU, and Virginia Tech – to determine best practices for tutor training.  Assessment data will be collected via qualitative interviews with tutors at each of the participating institutions and a nationwide survey of communication center administrators, administrative assistants, and tutors.  The findings will be used to create open-access communication center online training modules for training future communication center tutors at participating institutions.

Jordan Wilkins (Communication Center consultant), Kathleen Rossell (Learning Resource Center Coordinator, INTO Mason) Photo:  John Boal

“Mason’s Lab for Writing and Communication is leading the way nationally in student communication support , and we’re proud that 4-VA@Mason has been a part of this success story,” concluded Muir.

 

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4-VA@Mason Funds Development of Higher Education Community of Practice for Robotic Process Automation

Although Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a relatively new software technology used to automate tasks and business processes, has been implemented predominantly in government and the private sector, it is relatively untapped in higher education.  Thanks to a 4-VA@Mason grant, that will soon change for Virginia colleges and universities. The RPA Initiative at Mason’s Schar School will be leading the charge with the development of a Community of Practice (CoP) for higher education institutions throughout the state.

Through this software automation, colleges can reduce mundane and tedious work of administrative staff and increase quality assurance.  The VA Academic RPA CoP will help institutions of higher learning become familiar with the software automation and provide opportunities to collaborate across the commonwealth to enhance student experiences. The CoP will be a collaborative effort among all Virginia schools of higher education to also overcome the technical, management, and operational challenges that arise in designing and deploying effective RPA programs and initiatives. This includes important initiatives like designing common standards for credentialing, ensuring privacy and security, and designing common performance metrics to gauge RPA’s institutional impact to increase effectiveness and efficiency.

“Bringing innovative thinking to our academic partners across the commonwealth is the hallmark of 4-VA. We believe that the Academic RPA CoP will deliver important resources which will not only save money for participating institutions, but also create a higher level of quality control,” says Janette Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs, and 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator.

The technology is already employed at three 4-VA schools — at George Mason for Vendor Management, at William and Mary for Student Engagement and at Virginia Commonwealth University for Grant Management — with great success. At Mason, RPA technology reduced the vendor management process from 15-20 hours per week to just minutes, saving employees valuable time and increasing productivity. Additionally, the software digital automation reduced human error rates to zero and increased data entry accuracy to 100%.

The RPA Initiative envisions that the technology could be employed in a wide variety of departments, including Admissions, Student Services and Athletics. “We are eager to launch this pioneering project and look forward to helping determine how RPA can aid the academic sector through knowledge sharing, webinars, speakers, “best practices,” and updates on programs which could be automated to reduce repetitive work done today by academic personnel,” said Dr. David Rehr, Co-founder of the RPA Initiative.

For more information and to get involved, visit https://rpa-va.us/

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Effective Communication During Disaster Response: Managing the Minutia

Wenying Ji

While Wenying Ji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering at George Mason University, has previously collaborated with Xinghua Gao (Virginia Tech) and Jundong Li (University of Virginia), he saw a new opportunity to take their research deeper through a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant.  Through a 4-VA grant, Ji hoped, he and his fellow researchers could delve into an analysis of stakeholder communications during disaster response, an important addition to his ongoing research integrating advanced data analytics and complex system modeling to improve the performance of infrastructure systems.

Through the 4-VA program, Ji could receive funding from 4-VA@Mason, while his collaborators at Virginia Tech and UVA could also receive modest financial support from their universities through 4-VA.  Ji’s hopes came true as the 4-VA@Mason Advisory Board saw the potential in the research; thus, all collaborators obtained support from 4-VA.  Ji’s research aimed to model, analyze, and identify effective communication and collaboration patterns that stakeholders utilize in response to disasters.

As Ji explains it, during disaster response, the communication process among agencies is complex due to the involvement of a great number of agencies at different hierarchical levels and sectors–the federal, state, and local level agencies; non-governmental agencies; and private contractors. Ji’s goal was to extract effective communication and collaboration patterns through an analysis of historical disaster response documents and evaluate various possible communication and collaboration patterns that may affect stakeholder response.

Xinghua Gao

Their work began with Gao at Virginia Tech who was able to collect a range of valuable data sources (e.g., situational reports and government-issued guidelines) that document stakeholder interaction processes. The team considered situational reports from natural disasters, including Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and studied the reports documenting a 10-day period.

Jundong Li

That information was sent to Li, who is an expert in graph modeling. From there, the data went to Ji and graduate student Yitong Li. Li performed much of the analysis and gained valuable, practical experience from the research.

The result of their research has produced a quantitative model which evaluates the impact of information flow on the effectiveness of disaster response. Based on the model, a metric was then designed to evaluate the probability of community satisfaction. The designed model and the metric provide governmental stakeholders interpretable insights for evaluating the impact of information flow on their disaster response effectiveness, so that proactive actions can be targeted for enhanced disaster response. The team’s approach promotes inter-organizational collaboration in emergency management by helping stakeholders easily identify effective communication and collaboration patterns.

Yitong Li

Following their successful research, the group produced a journal paper entitled “Robustness of Stakeholder Response Networks for Infrastructure System Protection” for the American Society of Civil Engineers Journal of Management in Engineering, a conference paper and a presentation entitled “Understanding the Dynamics of Information Flow During Disaster Response Using Absorbing Markov Chains” were produced for the Winter Simulation Conference.

Next steps for the team? They plan to submit the proposal to the Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment (HDBE) program, which is an NSF funded grant.  “Thanks to this grant, we hope to take our project to the next level,” says Ji.

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4-VA@Mason and BAS: Getting to the Finish Line

For some students who begin their college career at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) — especially adult learners, first generation students and veterans — taking the leap to a four-year degree requires much more than negotiating transfer credits, selecting a class schedule, attending class, and doing homework.  For these students, sometimes finding time in the day for education is itself a challenge.  Life gets in the way. However, thanks to 4-VA@Mason and the Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) program, there is a path for a smooth transition from that two-year experience to a four-year diploma.

BAS offers a unique curriculum which has grown from two specializations to eight concentrations with four in technology-rich fields.  Many BAS concentrations can be completed entirely online, or via a hybrid format. Importantly, BAS ensures that all credits are transferred from NOVA to Mason.

Although the BAS program has experienced growth over the years, with its humble start of 1 student in 2012, the BAS program has ballooned to an expected 170 new students in Fall 2020.  While enrollment rates have accelerated as the program has grown in size and strength, the COVID – 19 pandemic is thought to be the reason for the explosion of registrations in the Fall class.

“Because of our extensive online offerings, BAS has attracted a surge of students since in-person learning was discontinued in March,” explains BAS Academic Program Coordinator and Adjunct Professor Krystal Dains. “We recently held a virtual transfer orientation for our Fall transfers which was an absolute success.”

What’s more, Dains says, those students already in the BAS program experienced a seamless shift to the virtual learning world.  “Overall, I would say that BAS students were perfectly positioned to adapt to the sudden changes in their education. Since many of our concentrations can be completed entirely online, the abrupt move to online classes in the Spring did not seem to have a huge impact on our students,” explains Dains. “Although some students have previously chosen in-person courses, all of them have had at least some experience with online learning, so it wasn’t totally new territory.”

Through 4-VA@Mason, the BAS program has changed exponentially, including removing various barriers — such as age restrictions — which allowed more students access to the opportunity.  Additionally, the program has expanded the degree pathways, and is now offering degree completion programs in the following areas:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Cyber Security
  • Technology & Innovation
  • Managerial Leadership
  • Legal Studies
  • Health, Wellness, and Social Services
  • Human Development and Family Sciences
  • Applied Conflict Analysis and Resolution

Dains also notes that the Mason BAS program is built on flexibility.  Even the approach to constructing the degree pathway is nimble. “The benefit of this model we’ve created is, it’s really quick. We get the correct people around the table.  We decide the learning outcomes and which classes support them.  We develop the curriculum and submit it to Undergraduate Council (UC).  For BAS, once UC approves it, we are good to go,” says Dains.  “We are perfectly positioned to put a new program in place quickly so we can be on the cutting edge.”

While Dains is enthusiastic about the future of BAS at Mason, she points to the already realized success of graduates who are flourishing in their careers (See “BAS Program Opens New Doors”).

“We have so much potential for future growth,” says Dains.  “For me, it’s an exciting program to work with and a great opportunity to be a part of something new and growing — and growing fast.   Our technology offerings are the right degrees at the right time.”

 

BAS Program Opens New Doors for Army Veteran

After seven years in the Army, including deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq, Gavin Amy returned to Northern Virginia to begin the next chapter in his life.  Studying his options, he decided to take advantage of his GI benefits and enroll at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).

His time at NOVA moved quickly thanks to several Russian language classes he had under his belt which were applied to his general studies courses.  He then began classes specific to an Associate of Applied Science degree in Cybersecurity.  Soon after, Amy learned about Mason’s Bachelor of Applied Science program which could help him see that next goal – a four-year degree.  “When I looked at the cybersecurity option in the BAS program, it offered a more practical and focused group of classes that could lead me to a job,” he recalls.

At the BAS orientation at Mason, Amy met his future counselor, Krystal Dains.  “Krystal answered all my questions that day” and, as Amy also credits, from that day forward. “She was my first exposure to the BAS program.  The transition to BAS was seamless and painless.  But probably what helped more than anything was Krystal.”

In 2019 Amy graduated from Mason with an Applied Science degree with a concentration in Cybersecurity. “In my second to last semester of undergraduate, I applied to the graduate program to get a Master of Science in Digital Forensics.”  The graduate degree allowed Amy even more opportunities in the job market.

Reaching his goal has resulted in a successful outcome for Amy.  He is beginning a new job in Incidence Response, which combines his academic experience in cybersecurity and forensics.  “I’m happy with what my academic career has led me to.”

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4-VA@Mason Awards 2022-2023 Collaborative Research Grants: Mason Faculty to Partner with Seven 4-VA Schools

Eleven pilot research projects, submitted from a wide range of departments across Mason, are set to launch July 1, 2022, thanks to funding from the state-sponsored 4-VA program. The 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants are designed to encourage new and innovative research conducted in conjunction with faculty at other 4-VA schools across the commonwealth.

“Our 4-VA@Mason Team as well as our Advisory Board were impressed by the depth and breadth of the proposals we received this year,” notes Janette Kenner Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason.  “From Athletic Training degrees for marginalized students to Green Infrastructure, from Rural Virginia Landownership Trends to Avian Window Collision, there’s going to be a terrific variety of research under our 4VA@Mason banner.”

In addition to promoting partnerships among the 4-VA schools, the Collaborative Research Grants provide seed money to prove out novel concepts which often go on to receive funding from public and private institutions based on the initial 4-VA catalyst funds.

For Dr. Kuo Tian, this grant will allow his team at Mason, with Dr. Ran Ji, and his colleague at Virginia Tech to closely analyze several critical factors in solid waste collection to develop a model for reducing the impact of waste.  As Dr. Tian illustrates in his proposal, the amount of municipal solid waste production is rapidly increasing in the U.S. due to population growth and urbanization, and can create ecological, economic, and societal challenges. With anaerobic digestion on the cusp of providing a promising technology to improve the sustainability of food waste, but which necessitates citizen participation, it is important to get a clear picture of real time garbage waste and the prospect and potential of community buy-in.  The team plans to partner with the Prince William County Solid Waste Division to conduct research, do community assessments, and provide a blueprint for implementation of the process.  “This grant is the first step to help us provide municipalities with a clear and success-oriented process of execution,” explains Dr. Tian.  “We are very hopeful that with our results, we can scale up the methodology with a subsequent larger research grant.  This subject is of great interest to public agencies.”

In addition to Mason, the 4-VA collective includes the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.

“We look forward to telling the stories that develop from the excellent cross-institutional research that will soon be underway,” says Muir. “Congratulations to the Mason faculty receiving a 2022-2023 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grant.”

The grant recipients are delineated below with the PI name, grant title, and co-collaborating schools:

Broberg, Shelby — Communication Center Tutor Training Needs Assessment and Open-Access Resource Development (VT, JMU)

Caswell, Amanda — Athletic Training JEDI Increasing Retention and Academic Performance of Athletic Training Students of Marginalized Students Through a Mentoring Program (JMU, ODU, UVA)

Doebel, Sabine — How Does Experience Support Working Memory Development in Early Childhood? (UVA)

Hanley, Daniel — Coordinated outreach across Virginia Universities and behavioral experiments to invent novel technology that reduces avian window collision mortality (WM)

Kim, Younsung — Assessing Green Infrastructure Potential Using Multi-Level Ecological and Economic Factors: The Northern Virginia Case (UVA)

Ranade, Nupoor — Ethical Data Analytics: Investigating Data Analytics as a Pedagogical Practice for the Humanities (ODU, JMU, VT)

Son, Byunghwan — Globalization in Reverse: The Diffusion of K-pop in the United States (UVA)

Tian, Kuo — Decision Support Tools for Smart Municipal Solid Waste Collection (VT)

Van Sant, Levi — Participatory Methods for Land Ownership Research in Rural Virginia (JMU)

Wang, Xuan — Data-driven Prediction and Regulation of Firing Rate Dynamics in the Brain (WM)

Weiss, Margaret — Co-teaching in Secondary Inclusive Classrooms: A Professional Learning Series  (VCU)

Established in 2010 upon the recommendation of the Governor’s Higher Education Commission and the Governor’s Commission on Economic Development and Job Creation, 4-VA is a partnership among eight universities in the commonwealth. 4-VA@Mason grants are offered in four broad areas—collaborative research, course redesign, shared courses, and degree completion.

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Find a Need and Fill It. The Mason BAS Program.

One area where 4-VA@Mason has made a profound impact is in degree completion, specifically in the development of the Bachelors of Applied Science (BAS) degree program. Launched ten years ago with just one student and two available concentrations, it is now flourishing as a popular and effective education option with almost 300 students enrolled. 

The degree was designed to help shepherd students graduating with applied associate degrees at community colleges to concentrations that fulfill requirements for a four-year degree at Mason. Today the BAS program is open to several community colleges and has ballooned to nine concentrations across several colleges within the university. 

Together with the ADVANCE program which 4-VA@Mason also helped to build, students moving from a two year degree to Mason’s four-year programs now have a robust selection of pathways to get to the finish line.

“Although we had high hopes for the BAS effort when we began – carefully aligning courses and curricula, appointing student advisors, and building concentration tracks, we never imagined such remarkable outcomes.  The results have been very rewarding.” admits Janette Muir, Vice Provost Academic Affairs, and the Campus Director of 4-VA@Mason. 

Muir also credits the BAS success to the specific concentrations selected for the program, “We had an opportunity to look strategically at those jobs that will be in demand in the future for Metropolitan Washington DC, as well as all of Virginia, and build our degrees around them, integrating corresponding skill sets into the curriculum.  Thanks to our strong relationships with area business, industry, and government leaders, we have been able to create a pipeline of talent to fill those needs.”

The BAS program now offers these concentrations:

  • Applied Conflict Analysis and Resolution
  • Cyber Security
  • Cloud Computing
  • Data Analytics
  • Health, Wellness and Social Services
  • Human Development and Family Science
  • Legal Studies
  • Managerial Leadership
  • Technology and Innovation

One person to witness this growth from the ground level is Krystal Dains, who, in 2014, started with the Mason BAS program as an advisor and today serves as the program’s Director.  While Dains was working her way through her roles in the program, she watched the enrollment numbers rise.  She notes particularly the jump when the Cyber Security concentration was introduced in the 2014-15 academic year.  She also saw a boost during the pandemic.  “Because of our extensive online offerings, we attracted a surge of students when in-person learning was discontinued in March 2020,” she says.

Dains explains another reason for their success, “We’re built on flexibility — even the approach to constructing the degree pathway is nimble. We get the correct people around the table.  We decide the learning outcomes and which classes support them.  We develop the curriculum and submit it to Undergraduate Council (UC).  For BAS, once UC approves it, we are good to go.  We are perfectly positioned to put a new program in place quickly so we can be on the cutting edge.”

As BAS grew, especially in Cyber Security, Dains needed to grow the faculty. And she needed just the right match.

BAS Expansion. The ‘Right Place at the Right Time.’

Mason alum and adjunct professor, Jen Deavers was recommended as a perfect fit for the program. Deavers holds an undergraduate degree in Decision Science Management Information Systems, and two master’s degrees also from Mason.

While life, work, and a young family kept Deavers away from teaching for a few years, she jumped back in 2019 when Muir suggested she teach the BAS Cyber Security class and, specifically, address the two-semester research capstone project.  Muir wanted a hands-on approach for sections 492-493 allowing students to gain practical experience and build their resume.  

Deavers got to work.  “First off, we wanted the capstone project to be flexible, but to provide practical experience.  It could be an internship; it could be self-study; it could be to learn a programming language,” she says.  Also, Deavers wanted students ready for the work force, guiding them to create a resume. “We get them to The Writing Center and Career Services and start building a professional portfolio,” Deavers notes.

For Deavers, who describes herself as passionate about connecting people, ‘connecting’ is the cornerstone of the capstone project. She has a requirement that students attend networking events and ‘put themselves out there.’  However, she points out, “Networking can happen anytime, anywhere.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be in person – it can be on a Slack channel, on Discord, and through Meet Up groups — most have a digital format.”  Deavers does encourage her students to attend the two Mason Innovation Forums held each semester and target two or three professionals from industry to talk with about their career, job interests, and internship opportunities. “There are humans behind these computers,” Deavers explains.  “We just need to bring our students together with people in the workforce.”  (See “Connecting for a Dream Job.”)

After teaching the Cyber Security focused capstone class for eight semesters, it was time to grow the program again.  “I started out teaching 10 students per section and we’re up to 30 students per section,” Deavers explains.  Deavers enlisted one of her own former students, Hanna Westover, to take on teaching the second semester class.   “We are going to tag team,” Deavers says. “Cybersecurity interviews are tough. Hanna is taking it one step further and will really ‘drill’ our students for interview prep.” 

Deavers expects that the BAS Cyber Security concentration will continue to boom, “We’re in the right place at the right time.”  Adding, “We’re also going to see people coming through for Cloud Computing – that’s another hot program right now.”

Knocking Down Barriers and Adding Masters Programs. Two More Steps Forward.

With BAS concentrations filling the need for students and Virginia businesses and government, Dains has an eye toward expanding the reach of student population.  Her goal?  To remove the barriers for students matriculating into the BAS degree. As the program often assists traditionally underserved populations including veterans, adult learners, and first-generation college attendees, Dains wants to give students greater access to a great education.  Already enlarging the base, the BAS program now welcomes students from Laurel Ridge, Germanna, and Tidewater Community Colleges.  Dains hopes to expand that pool to more schools in the future.

Also on Dains ‘to-do’ list is adding to the growing number of accelerated master’s degrees aligned to the program.  Qualified students currently have access to an Applied Information Technology MS, Digital Forensics MS, and the Management MS programs if they are in the Applied Science, Cyber Security Concentration. Qualified students in the Data Analytics concentration have the option of obtaining an accelerated Applied Information Technology MS, or Data Analytics Engineering MS. Concludes Dains, “Our goal is to give our students the best options for success – in their education, their careers, and their lives.”

Connecting for a ‘Dream’ Job

Jen Deavers believes in connections and doesn’t give up a chance to bring her students together with anyone in the cyber industry.  Whether formal events or chance meetings, she takes full advantage of building relationships. 

She relates one experience when she had a potential student reach out and ask about what track to take in the BAS program.  After some back and forth, she learned that the potential student was currently in an internship with Disney in Cyber Security.  “I immediately asked, ‘Would you come in and talk to my class?’ What an opportunity to hear from someone in Disney cyber work!” she exclaims.

She concedes she often gets pushback from her students about the networking requirements in the capstone project.  She understands that it’s uncomfortable and ‘students feel vulnerable putting themselves out there.’  However, Deavers does not send them out without a good deal of preparation.  “I have them craft questions for the professionals they meet, and I go over the questions and their materials and approve them in advance,” she explains. “But I tell them: ‘Do not leave without getting a name and a number!’”

However, Deavers says the dividends are worth every bit of angst the students fear.  “When I read my students’ reflection papers, I realize that it’s making a difference,” says Deavers. Students have been thanking her for pushing them to go to the Innovation Forum, which is traditionally held at the Army Navy Country Club near Mason’s Fairfax Campus.  One student wrote about her experience, noting “I’ve never been to someplace so fancy!  I was nervous just showing up.  But when I sat down, I met a person from the industry.  They said they were fine with me calling them later in the semester for an interview!” 

Deavers recalls another former student, Mallorie Debarr, “She is exactly who I want to teach,” says Deavers.  “She has enthusiasm and was willing to do the tasks assigned in 492-3.”  DeBarr recently emailed Deavers with this exciting news:

I want to thank you for pushing me forward in my career; even though they were just assignments, they’ve been extraordinarily valuable in navigating the job-hunting process. This brings me to my fantastic news; I just landed my dream job! Well, the first of many steps in my career progression. I just accepted a position as an Information Assurance Analyst at a small but growing tech startup in Loudoun that starts on June 6th. Additionally, they want to put time into training me to be a Security Consultant and travel to meet clients. (AMAZING!)

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Mason Turns 50 and 4-VA Celebrates a Dozen Years at the Intersection of Innovation and Education

This year, George Mason University is celebrating 50 years as an independent university, separating from the University of Virginia in April of 1972. A lot has happened in those 50 years. Since our humble beginnings holding classes in the old Fairfax High School, Mason has grown into the largest public university in Virginia operating four campuses in the commonwealth – Fairfax, Arlington, Front Royal, and Prince William, and one in Incheon, Korea.

That’s a lot of education innovation.  But that’s always been the George Mason University way.

Since 4-VA@Mason launched a dozen years ago, we have followed in those same footprints. Moving from humble beginnings in 2010, when we were established upon the recommendation of the Governor’s Higher Education Commission and the Governor’s Commission on Economic Development and Job Creation, we’ve grown from four founding schools — Mason, James Madison University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia – to eight, including The College of William and Mary, Virginia Military Institute, Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Our growth has reaped rewards for students, education, and Virginia.

4-VA Growth Marked with Collaboration and Efficiency

In 2010, we began by offering unique niche classes between the partner schools, via then state-of-the-art Telepresence Rooms, providing more options for students at the schools, while saving other universities the cost of developing and delivering classes with smaller enrollments.  From there, we’ve never stopped innovating.

The core purpose of 4-VA is to find ways to improve efficiencies in higher education institutions, promote cross-institution research and build collaborations that leverage the strengths of each partner university. We know that by working together we can grow that spark of a great idea into bright results and reduce the redundancy that sometimes results from working in separate silos. Our programs support four program areas – Collaborative Research Grants, Course Sharing, Course Redesign, and Degree Completion.  Importantly, 4-VA represents the breadth of higher education backgrounds; monitoring trends in education and learning; and allowing each of our endeavors to evolve and change as necessary.  One overarching tenant of the 4-VA foundation remains constant, however, to embrace emerging technology to achieve our goals.

Happy Big 5-0 George Mason University and here’s to another dozen years of 4-VA@Mason success stories!