Today marks the one-year anniversary of Virginia Tech announcing plans to build an Innovation Campus in Alexandria as part of the state’s successful effort to attract Amazon to pick the Washington region for its second headquarters. This week, Virginia Tech News is publishing a series of stories that highlight the continuing progress of the campus. 

In January, Sara Hooshangi will join Virginia Tech as the founding program director for the master of engineering degree in computer science, the first new degree program for the Innovation Campus. As its inaugural director, Hooshangi aims to shape the program into a rigorous but flexible offering to students with diverse backgrounds, equipping them with skills sought out by the fast-growing tech industry of the greater Washington, D.C., metro area.

“This degree is a fantastic opportunity to help meet the increasing demand for a highly technical workforce in this region, and in turn meet the needs of our growing tech industry,” said Hooshangi. “Our focus on skills related to computer science is unique in the area. While it may be easy to find graduates with some technical skills, good software developers are hard to find. Good cybersecurity experts are hard to find. That’s where I think we’re going to shine.”

The master of engineering in computer science degree program, launching this spring, will enable students to build a foundation of technical skills that ready them for mid-level and advanced positions in computing technology. The degree program is designed for flexibility, both in admission to the program and in conditions for completing the degree. Students are eligible to enroll in the program after completing a second-semester programming course, which is offered at many community colleges and undergraduate institutions. Upon enrollment, students can choose their pace, with options for part-time, full-time, and accelerated study.

These modes of flexibility are key to broadening participation among students on different educational paths, said Hooshangi. For nearly a decade, that’s been her mission.

Since 2010, Hooshangi has served as a faculty member in the College of Professional Studies at the George Washington University and the founding director for the Integrated Information, Science, and Technology program, a bachelor’s degree completion program designed for community college students and working professionals. In that role, Hooshangi has worked to help non-traditional students — like those who balance full-time jobs with classes and adult learners already committed to multiple work and family obligations — receive a technical bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University, graduate on time, and enter the D.C. area tech workforce. Under Hooshangi’s leadership, participation in the program has increased from 12 students enrolled in its first year to 70 students graduating each year.

In 2014, Hooshangi received a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to fund scholarships for 10 students in the degree completion program. With it, she aimed to enable recipients to focus more on their studies and less on the cost of their pursuit. In addition to funding, scholarship students received support through mentoring and interaction with industry leaders.

“It’s really important to offer programs that allow a more diverse student population to access technical skills – that they receive an education that can make a difference in their lives and set them on a path for a rewarding and successful career trajectory,” she said.

Wherever students are on their academic and professional paths when they join the Innovation Campus degree program, Hooshangi sees employment for them as her bottom line. “You want to make sure that they can actually land a technical job, a good job, when they graduate,” she said. “I envision collaborating with industry and Virginia Tech’s existing D.C. network to sharpen the details of this degree, so that our graduates are ready to hit the ground running.”

Students joining the master of engineering in computer science degree program will choose from concentrations in data analytics and machine learning, computer security, and artificial intelligence. As enrollment increases, their options will expand to software engineering, human-computer interaction, and internet software development. In addition to these specialized subjects, coursework will touch on communications skills and ethics.

The program provides the first newly created degree for Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, the 1 million-square-foot, Alexandria-based cornerstone of the commonwealth’s plan to double its tech-talent pipeline, a goal cited by Amazon leadership as key to their decision to bring HQ2 to Northern Virginia. The first master’s degree students, including those in computer science, will enroll in existing locations or temporary space as the first wave of Innovation Campus buildings undergo construction over five years. During this time, the goal is to fill the campus with 500 master’s degree candidates, and at scale, bring enrollment up to 750 students. The strategic location of the Innovation Campus will allow its programs to pull from and train talent in the D.C. area – where government agencies, research institutions, and tech companies converge.

“We’re starting from the ground up as part of the Innovation Campus,” said Hooshangi. “Being part of that process is very interesting to me. It was a big draw. I do have that entrepreneurial spirit of coming in at an early stage to build a program and watch it become successful, as I was able to do at GW. I’m excited to try new things again. It’s a great time to join Virginia Tech.”

“Dr. Hooshangi brings deep experience in recruiting and preparing students from a wide variety of backgrounds and equipping them for exciting careers in computing,” said Cal Ribbens, head of the Department of Computer Science. “We are thrilled that she will help lead this new degree program.”

Through her research, Hooshangi has explored engineering and undergraduate education methods in the context of improving learning outcomes for non-traditional students and increasing diversity in STEM fields. As an associate professor at the George Washington University, Hooshangi has taught courses on subjects including programming, data analytics and visualization, and ethics in technology. She will continue to teach as a faculty member in the master of engineering in computer science degree program.

Written by Suzie Irby

The week's Innovation Campus anniversary coverage:

Through fellows program, graduate students have voice in Innovation Campus plans

Virginia Tech formalizes commitment to boost tech talent for commonwealth

Tech on Tap series engages community in Innovation Campus topics