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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2015 / 07 

New general education curriculum to provide opportunity for integrative learning

July 22, 2015

A poster presentation at Newman Library
Students in John Chermak's Pathways pilot course, Resources and the Environment, worked on group projects together focusing on energy sources. The projects culminated with a poster presentation session at Newman Library.

Virginia Tech's new general education curriculum, Pathways to General Education, is on track to replace the current Curriculum for Liberal Education with anticipated implementation to begin for students entering in 2017.

“As we focus on maximizing the potential for learning and growth across a student’s full undergraduate experience, it’s essential that all aspects of our curriculum build intellectual skills and abilities required to solve the complex problems of the 21st century,” said Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. “General education is a key component for the broad and deep education our undergraduate students need.”

Pathways will offer students three options to fulfill general education requirements. One is similar to the current model in which students choose approved courses from learning outcomes but with added scholarship in computation and design thinking and an increased focus on the arts.

The other two options are more innovative. Students can earn an interdisciplinary “Pathways Minor” or take an “Alternative Pathway,” an individualized plan of study with rich experiences such as undergraduate research, education abroad, and service learning, to fulfill a significant portion of their general education requirements.

“We have an opportunity to be a front-runner,” said Ann-Marie Knoblauch, associate professor of art history. Pathways “doesn’t resemble anything else that’s currently being done, and other universities are looking to see how it works at Virginia Tech.”

Pilot courses showcase best general education teaching practices

Last year, eight faculty members served as Pathways Faculty Scholars, piloting courses and developing minors that promote best practices for general education.

“There’s this ‘one and done’ mentality. You take a course, you take the test, and you’re done,” said John Chermak, associate professor of practice in geosciences. “This new approach really allows us to try to understand, how does my English class tie into my science class, which ties into social sciences.”

In spring 2015, Chermak restructured a section of his resources geology course. Chermak rarely lectured, encouraging group discussions, projects, and presentations.

“Teaching is the best way of learning. When you give a presentation, you are really learning it, not just memorizing it,” said Madeline Marcus of Vienna, Virginia, a junior majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “This class made me more well-rounded, which is what I feel general education classes are for.”

Eric Lyon, associate professor of practice in the School of Performing Arts, piloted a Pathways course called Digital Sound Manipulation. “My class was about what do I have to offer to computer scientists, but equally about what does my class with engineers have to offer music majors, among others.”

“Unlike any other class I’ve taken, this class had a huge diversity of students, with around 15 different majors represented,” said James Dagres, a 2014 graduate in computer engineering in the College of Engineering. “It provided uniqueness in the class structure and the freedom for each student to apply projects into their own field.”

“I never really saw myself as a creative person,” said Omavi Walker of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a senior majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering. “It got my mind thinking in a more creative and empowered direction, where before I felt like a kind of robot.”

Brock Allen of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a junior majoring in computer engineering in the College of Engineering, said the course helped him combine his major with his other passion – playing the saxophone. “We were given an open-ended creative assignment with some technical requirements and logistics. I was blown away at the creative directions each student took with their project, each corresponding to personal interests.”

Moving forward

“I think Pathways participates in helping 21st century pre-professionals become more engaged citizens because it takes us out of our vocational training and shows a bigger picture,” said Shelli Fowler, associate professor of English and senior director for Networked Pedagogies and Professional Development in Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies.

“The idea is for there not to be two different parts of a students education competing with another,” said Jill Sible, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. “With Pathways, we hope to create synergies between a major and the broader general education piece.”

Thomas Staley, associate professor of practice in materials science and engineering and science and technology in society, said the changes are exciting, but also nerve-wracking. “The idea of integrating general education more directly into their subject matter frightens a lot of people. But I think there is extremely positive potential to keep people from developing tunnel vision as they go through their college experience.”

Implementing the change

Early in 2015-16, faculty will develop an implementation plan with the curriculum anticipated to go into effect for the class entering in 2017.

“Over the next two years, more pilot courses will launch, faculty will rethink existing courses with the Pathways lens and develop new courses, and new interdisciplinary Pathways minors will be established,” said Stephen Biscotte, coordinator of the Office of General Education. “Those changes will be interwoven into current Curriculum for Liberal Education requirements, so all students see the benefits.”

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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