Virginia Tech Magazine
Spring 2009

Pathways for Learning: An educational model for the future by Denise Young

When ad-hoc committee members met in 2006 to discuss the university's core curriculum--since renamed the Curriculum for Liberal Education (CLE)--the educational model that emerged from their discussions became much more than a renaming of general education.

In keeping with the university's updated strategic plan and its goals of learning, discovery, and engagement, committee members envisioned an educational ideal that empowered each student to take charge of his or her education, crafting an individually tailored experience with a scope beyond the classroom.

Their vision led to today's Virginia Tech Pathways for Learning program, a seedling initiative that is taking root in departments across campus.

Embodying a holistic education

Recognizing that a true, memorable educational experience consists of more than course work, Pathways' creators sought a way to fuse classroom knowledge with opportunities such as studying abroad, interning domestically or internationally, contributing to research endeavors at the undergraduate level, or participating in extracurricular activities on campus.

"We thought this palette of options was the best view of how students can create their educational path," says Ron Daniel, associate provost for undergraduate education. "Students could surprise themselves with what they can actually do. A pathway isn't just something you stumble upon--it's planned."

The purpose of Pathways is to help students map out their time as undergraduates, the idea being that if they can think beyond the checklist of required courses and beyond the upcoming semester, they will be able to make space for these opportunities. Central to this purposeful planning are the concepts of creating individualized liberal education options, promoting student-centered academic advising, and more readily facilitating educational opportunities outside the classroom.

"We realized that if we wanted to think about the whole student, we had to talk about things beyond the core curriculum. There's also a national dialogue about what students place importance on in their education--not just courses, but experiences," says Daniel.

In fact, this push toward holistic education is part of an ongoing discussion among universities in the U.S.--and for good reason. "Holistic education means seeing life beyond one dimension," explains Daniel Wubah, vice president and dean for undergraduate education, whose office oversees the University Center for Undergraduate Education (UCUE) in which the Pathways program is based. Holistic education, he adds, creates students who are problem solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners and who are quantitatively literate as well as able to appreciate art.

Student-centered planning: the CLE

Making up one-third of a student's educational experience, the CLE can provide a unique experience when it is personalized, not only by each student, but also by each professor teaching a course for the CLE.

"I approach my course as an opportunity to teach my students to slow down and to make whatever space they're in beautiful," says Jane Vance, who teaches The Creative Process in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. She approaches teaching her class--a mix of 30 to 35 students whose majors range from art and English to engineering and biology--as one might approach a painting: as a triptych. Students first learn to hear stories and understand their own spirituality as they read A River Sutra. Next, they read Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons and look at the bruise on the nation left by Hurricane Katrina, learning about grief and generosity. Finally, they study an autobiographical account of genocide in Tibet, asking the question, "How does the creative process survive in the most dire, poisoned circumstances?"

Vance's course, which teaches visual literacy in art and the skill of responding emotionally and spiritually to stories, is just one example of how a course in the CLE can bring together students from a broad range of disciplines to engage them in the artistic process and to weave what they have learned into their perspective of their chosen major.

In addition to maximizing the impact of individual courses, the CLE allows students at a large research university like Tech to find a more individualized experience. The committee developed three possible routes for students to satisfy their general-education requirements. The first is the traditional path, in which students take courses in each content area until all of their requirements are fulfilled. The second, in contrast, allows students to take a thematic approach. Students choosing this track would take courses across liberal-education areas that relate to a specific theme.

Launched in fall 2004, the earth-sustainability (ES) option--currently the only thematic track available--offers interdisciplinary community-based experiences, field trips, small-group active learning, and guest speakers. Students enter in cohorts and work together in learning communities of 25 to 30 students for two years, fulfilling their CLE requirements along the way.

The purpose of Pathways is to help students map out their time as undergraduates, the idea being that if they can think beyond the checklist of required courses and beyond the upcoming semester, they will be able to make space for these opportunities.

The purpose of Pathways is to help students map out their time as undergraduates, the idea being that if they can think beyond the checklist of required courses and beyond the upcoming semester, they will be able to make space for these opportunities.
The purpose of Pathways is to help students map out their time as undergraduates, the idea being that if they can think beyond the checklist of required courses and beyond the upcoming semester, they will be able to make space for these opportunities.
Junior Danielle Wroblewski says that the idea of spending four semesters with the same people seemed like a great way to make friends and get to know professors and other students better than she would have in a traditional model. She also credits the ES option with opening her eyes to how her actions affect the world. "Everything we learned in ES connects to the real world, beyond our hometown, Blacksburg, and the U.S. One thing that ES students understand is that to change the world, you cannot be a spectator who sits at home and complains about the state of the world. You have to get out there and do something about it."

Wroblewski, who is majoring in animal science with an equine emphasis, feels that more CLE options like the ES track that provide real-world knowledge and teach students to see and care about the world beyond themselves would help students to live the university motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Although the third approach has not yet been implemented outside the Honors Program, it was designed to give each student the opportunity to fashion a curriculum in the CLE that meets his or her educational needs and choices. This practice has proven successful with honors students who bring large amounts of previous credit when they are given sufficient advising and mentoring support.

Tools to empower students

Faculty members and administrators involved in creating Pathways recognized that many students plan their course work on a semester-by-semester basis, missing significant opportunities. University Honors students have long used holistic planning tools to take advantage of all education opportunities and are, in fact, required to use a formal planner to maintain honors status. Based on this model, Daniel and the UCUE created the Pathways Planner, an organizer that allows students to map out their education by providing them with guidance for including experiences beyond the classroom--such as study abroad opportunities, co-ops, minors, membership in student organizations, research, and internships--and for tailoring the CLE requirements to their individual goals. The planner comes with Post-It notes on which students can write down courses or other opportunities that they wish to consider and then move those opportunities to different semesters as their paths evolve.

Daniel notes that this planning process may be especially challenging for students in rigorously structured programs, such as engineering. By engaging the student in planning his or her educational path from day one, however, Pathways for Learning can even help students in the most structured of majors to create niches for unique experiences.

"I filled out the planner as a part of University Honors the summer before my freshman year," says Lenise Phillips, a sophomore honors student with a double major in French and English. "When you plan semester by semester, you miss a lot of possibilities. When you look further ahead, you realize that, maybe, you could add a double major."

Another department that has embraced the planner is the University Academic Advising Center (UAAC), which is responsible for advising the more than 2,300 undeclared undergraduates at Tech, and University Studies. Approximately one-third of each incoming freshman class in recent years have entered as undeclared, notes UAAC and University Studies Director Kimberly Brown, an echo of a national trend that she attributes to students' growing awareness of their options for their academic careers. "They don't want to narrow their options too quickly."

Though the planner is not mandatory for most university studies students, Brown has found that a significant number of students are using it. The center has also held Pathways Parties in the Career Services Center, in which students can meet with advisors in group sessions to discuss course work and learn about opportunities for internships and cooperative-learning experiences.

Sophomore Sarah Potter entered Tech as an undecided major in the University Studies office. Now a management major, Potter still talks to her previous advisor in the UAAC. Potter says that the Pathways Planner helped her to focus on the long-term. "It just helps in the process of being more comfortable knowing how to organize your classes," she says. "It's really convenient because it's all mapped out in front of you--it helps you to fit things together," adds Potter, who has included a study-abroad trip to Switzerland in fall 2009.

Brown says that the planner is essential to creating a student-centered learning experience. She finds that academic advising is moving toward a more individualized model based on student involvement in the planning process. "As a result of the intentionality and responsibility placed on them, students are developing much more creative paths. They see that there are so many different paths to reach the same end goal."

Learn, discover, and engage--beyond the classroom

Given that a global awareness is vital for participating fully as a citizen in today's world and economy, international travel becomes an increasingly essential tool for enhancing the student experience.

Ryan Davenport, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, says that he had not considered studying abroad because he did not want to fall behind in his studies. When he discovered the Rising Sophomore Abroad Program (RSAP) in the College of Engineering, he knew he'd found a way to fit global travel into his schedule. Though not associated with the Pathways program, RSAP is yet another example of how the university is attempting to create opportunities for students to gain education stretching beyond the confines of a campus and engaging them in learning and discovery outside their field. RSAP includes a spring-semester, on-campus class that blends art, culture, and engineering, preparing students for an intense two-week study-abroad experience in May, a format that allows students in a structured degree program a flexible option for a unique experience.

"All engineers should study abroad because just by being in another country, you realize that you need to be culturally aware. Everything you do as an engineer affects the world, and you need to be globally conscious," reflects Davenport, whose primary interest in engineering is green energy. He adds that visiting places like Germany, where the use of wind energy is prevalent, helped to reaffirm his interest in alternative-energy development.

Amanda Vermaaten, a sophomore chemical engineering major, also participated in RSAP. One of the aspects of the program that most resonated with her was her discovery of the intersection of art and engineering. "Before I went, I was so intent on seeing engineering as problem-solving and efficiency, but studying art made me appreciate the little details in things. It's not just parallel lines and angles anymore. Experiencing a little bit of everything helps you to be well-rounded," says Vermaaten.

Of course, students can gain a valuable hands-on learning experience outside the classroom closer to home. Vermaaten has also participated in a summer 2008 internship with General Motors and is planning a 2009 internship with the Dow Chemical Company, which she says will prepare her to enter the workforce by giving her experience in the field.

Sophomore Connor Prussin, who is triple majoring in computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering, has found that on-the-job co-op experiences, both domestically and abroad, fit well into his educational path. A co-op, a semester-long, full-time employment opportunity, provides a student with hands-on learning in his or her field. Prussin's co-op has been with GE in Salem, Va., where he has designed software to manage databases and speed up internal processes. As someone with five official advisors, Prussin meets with them on a regular basis to plan his path, which also includes another co-op this summer with ABB in Ladenberg, Germany. "These experiences provide students with new insights into the world, both in a personal and a professional sense, and I can confidently say that I am much better prepared for the ‘real world'--whatever that is--as a result of them," reflects Prussin.

A work in progress

A new version of the planner is being created for fall 2009, with the primary change being an extra foldout section to make more sections of the planner visible at a time. There also will be a new electronic version of the planner that will offer students a more high-tech approach to mapping out pathways. The goal is to give the Pathways Planner a more consistent and connected feel, graphically and operationally.

Daniel hopes to connect the online planner with other university Web tools, including e-Portfolio, a Virginia Tech website that allows students to create an online, customized portfolio highlighting their accomplishments and accolades, and the Degree Audit Reporting System, hosted by the University Registrar, which provides a computer-generated report that compares a student's course work to the degree requirements for his or her major.

"People from across the university--vice presidents, associate deans, and faculty--tell me that if we had that interconnection, we'd really have something," noted Daniel at a Jan. 28 Pathways discussion between students and staff involved in Pathways. "What we need is to get that critical mass of students and advisors using it," Daniel added. "We need support and leadership at all levels to pull things together and make it happen."

Yet, he says, Pathways is bigger than just curriculum. It's all of the available opportunities outside the classroom, from student-organization participation to study-abroad experiences, that come together to shape each student's educational and career path. Broader than the CLE, Pathways is a philosophy meant to embrace a changing and emerging model of education--a holistic educational model for the future.

To learn more about Pathways for Learning and to view the online version of the Pathways Planner, go to

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