A Minor Theme
Lessons from Virginia Tech’s revitalized general education curriculum
August 4, 2022
In 2018, Virginia Tech launched Pathways General Education to revitalize its dated general education curriculum and create a program that engages students across disciplines, addresses real-world problems, and offers meaningful, inclusive experiences for all students. To achieve these goals, the Pathways program needed to connect to students’ areas of study, align with their career goals, and address their lived experiences, regardless of their majors or backgrounds.
Central to the program was the creation of Pathways Minors. Hosted by individual departments, these cross-disciplinary minors are built around themes that allow students to examine concepts from a variety of perspectives. For example, students examine the concept of sustainability using humanistic, scientific, computational, economic, and artistic perspectives. Like all minors at Virginia Tech, each new Pathways minor requires a minimum of eighteen credits and six upper-level courses. Minor requirements also include three core general education concepts, a foundational and capstone experience, and a minimum of nine credit hours toward general education requirements. (Virginia Tech undergraduates must complete forty-five credits of general education.)
To ensure the minors are relevant to students, the twenty-nine programs approved so far address vital issues such as sustainability, social justice, cybersecurity, food, water, and big data.
The first four-year cohort of students graduated with Pathways Minors in spring 2022. Here is what Virginia Tech has learned:
Students will respond to general education if they believe it’s relevant and valuable for their future.
After four years of consistent growth, more than 1,100 students are currently enrolled in Pathways Minors. The reason for the high level of participation is that Pathways Minors provide depth and context for the work students want to pursue after graduation. For example, a recent graduate decided to pursue the integrated security minor after her supervisor at an internship suggested that she needed to understand cybersecurity from a programmer's perspective.
“As a liberal arts major in national security and foreign policy, you have the opportunity to build your own path,” says Cassidy K., a class of 2022 graduate. “The integrated security minor gave me the opportunity to take classes that I wouldn’t have normally experienced and allowed me to understand a more technical side of the field, including coding, computer modeling, and data analytics.”
Similarly, a junior majoring in business information technology at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business added a Pathways minor because she believed it would provide her with essential career skills. “I’ve always known I wanted a role in business that would allow me to support technology projects, which is why I pursued the philosophy, politics, and economics minor,” says Zaria K., a member of the class of 2023. “It will allow me to more effectively convey my ideas and articulate them to clients. Since the minor is part of the Pathways program, I already had some of the credits from meeting my general education requirements, so it meant a lighter course load than pursuing another minor.”
Unlike general education requirements, Pathways Minors appear on transcripts. Feedback from students indicates this can be a helpful talking point during job interviews. The result is students who are engaged in their general education through the Pathways Minors program not because of a checklist of the required courses for graduation but because, for many students, the courses match their career goals.
Pathways Minors attract a wide range of students.
Any new initiative requires broad acceptance by students. Fortunately, that has been true for the Pathways Minors. Women, students from historically marginalized communities, and underserved students (Pell-grant eligible, veteran, or first-generation) are enrolled in Pathways Minors at levels that are equal to or higher than their representation in the larger campus community. Here is how the enrollment data break down: The university’s enrollment for the 2022 spring semester was 28,477, which included 7,147 (25 percent) underserved students and 4,776 (17 percent) students from historically marginalized communities. When we compare the demographics of the Pathways Minors during the same period—17 percent students from historically marginalized communities and 30 percent underserved students—we find the representation closely mirrors the university as a whole.
Digging deeper into the data, we find that several individual groups of students are over represented or match the overall demographics of the university. Women make up 76 percent of Pathways Minors students while representing 43 percent of the university’s undergraduate enrollment. And African American, Hispanic, and students identifying as two or more races are participating in the program at rates within a single percentage point of their overall representation on campus.
Faculty and students want to explore and collaborate outside their departments and majors.
Pathways Minors draw students from a range of disciplines. For example, the organizational leadership minor has seventy-five students enrolled from thirty-three different majors and seven colleges. Thematic minors provide an opportunity for faculty to examine issues and pursue their passions with colleagues from a wide variety of scholarship.
Rebecca Hester, assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, is working with professors from the English and history departments to create a Pathways minor based on their work with the refugee community in Roanoke, Virginia. “There was a natural affinity between us because we were all interested in similar issues,” she says. “Prior to submitting the Pathways minor proposal, all of us spent years listening to and working alongside members of the refugee and immigrant communities in Virginia and beyond. One of the beauties of the displacement studies minor will be that it speaks to the mission of a land-grant university, creating programs that are responsive to the needs of Virginia and the rest of the country.”
If integrating learning is an essential outcome for any curriculum—as James P. Barber argues in his book, Facilitating the Integration of Learning—then Pathways Minors should offer opportunities for students to connect knowledge in general education to their prior content knowledge, major studies, personal interests, and career goals.
Preliminary survey data collected from students enrolled in minor capstone courses also produced encouraging results. Student ratings produced mean scores greater than 5 on a 6-point scale for connecting learning within the minor with prior content knowledge, their major, and the real world.
Pathways Minors continue to contribute to the university-level priority of offering cross-disciplinary learning opportunities to students. As administrators, we’ve been excited to see our faculty’s renewed involvement in general education, as people from different fields work together to develop a curriculum focused on their shared passions and research. Their energy and enthusiasm have been important to sustaining the program.
Despite these achievements, more work needs to be done.
Students have widely adopted Pathways Minors across majors and departments with one exception: the College of Engineering. Engineering majors are Virginia Tech’s largest block of students, totaling about eleven thousand, or 40 percent of undergraduates. In spring 2022, just seventy-nine engineering students enrolled in Pathways Minors.
The large number of courses required for an engineering degree partially explains the lack of enrollment, but perception is also a factor. As students pursue their degrees, they may think they don’t have the time or the room in their schedules to participate. Because the Pathways Minors are optional and meet many of the general education credits, we believe students have ample opportunity to participate. Future messaging and outreach, including meetings, program handouts, and efforts to showcase engineering students who have participated in the program, will target engineering majors and their academic advisors.
Similarly, transfer students will be a focus of the program in the coming semesters. In the spring 2022 semester, only fifty transfer students were enrolled in Pathways Minors, likely because so many students who start their college elsewhere arrive on campus with their general education requirements already completed. How can we engage these students who are focused on coursework within their majors? Can we reach prospective transfers before they arrive at Virginia Tech?
In the capstone survey, students provided valuable feedback for improving individual minors and the program overall. Some of this feedback already has contributed to structural, advertising, and enrollment improvements, but much work is still necessary.
Looking ahead, we will want students to continue to have experiences like this one from a recent graduate in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences:
“The [Appalachian cultures and environments minor] helped solidify an important part of my identity and showed me that my home was special and not forgotten in academic circles,” says Camden P., who graduated in 2021 with a Pathways minor. “The program sent me on a journey to learn more about the place I call home and allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for my family, my neighbors, and all those who lived before me.”
We will continue to analyze the success measures and enrollments to ensure all students have access to a meaningful general education experience at Virginia Tech.
Lead photo: A poster session for the Pathways General Education course, Earth Resources, Society and the Environment, fall semester 2021. (Ashley Wynn)