Concepts like sustainability and conservation are not linked to any one discipline. The demand for clean water or the dream of ecologically balanced cities will not be achieved by researchers in any one field. The global impacts of climate change cannot be understood through the lens of any one major.

Instead, the solutions for tomorrow require students of today to be able to think across disciplines, be versed in a range of perspectives, and have the confidence to work collaboratively with others.

Virginia Tech’s Pathways to General Education curriculum, which now includes more than two dozen Pathways minors, is structured around core and integrative concepts that provide students with a meaningful education experience.

The Pathways minors offered through the College of Natural Resources and Environment aim to provide students with a base of knowledge on some of the central environmental and natural resources challenges the world faces, while fostering engagement and connection across all of the colleges at Virginia Tech. The college’s five Pathways minors are biodiversity conservation, blue planet, climate and society, ecological cities, and pathways to sustainability.

“Our Pathways minors extend the disciplines, knowledge, and expertise of our faculty and college to new student audiences on campus,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “I am a strong proponent of the Pathways initiative as an educational vehicle for broadening discourse and building bridges to other colleges. Our faculty have put together interesting, exciting, and relevant minors that are central to the global challenges of today and the future.”

Helping students with a hard choice

For many students at Virginia Tech, choosing a major is a fraught decision.

“Coming to college, I was having a big conflict,” said sophomore Ella Waide. “I love civil engineering and sustainable urban development, but I also love ecology, biology, and environmental science. I was trying to find an intersection between those two interests, but they don’t really converge academically, so I felt like I had to choose.”

For Waide, the Pathways minor in biodiversity conservation gave her the opportunity to gain a background in conservation challenges through a biological perspective while pursuing a major in civil engineering.

“We have students from different majors in which their careers and the decisions they make will relate to or affect natural resources in some way,” said Professor Dean Stauffer of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, who designed the minor. “It’s important for us to provide a way to help them understand how their decisions fit into a broader environmental context.”

From silos to themes

The Pathways curriculum requires students to take a total of 45 credits across seven core and two integrative concepts. Students can choose to pursue a Pathways minor as a means of completing a portion of those credits in a thematic program. Pathways minors include a foundational experience that introduces the minor as well as a capstone course that summarizes and offers opportunities to apply and engage with the central focus of each minor.

“From the outset of these programs, there was a strong call for interdisciplinary opportunities among students,” said Stephen Schoenholtz, professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, who leads the blue planet minor with Research Assistant Liz Sharp. “These minors are academically rigorous: students who take upper-level courses through the minor are expected to meet the same course expectations as students who are majoring in the subject.”

Stepping out of one’s “silo” or area of expertise is a distinct challenge for students. It is also an opportunity for growth.

“Pathways are a step away from our disciplinary obsessions,” noted Associate Professor Timothy Baird of the Department of Geography, who leads the pathways to sustainability minor. “One of our goals is to encourage students to learn to deal with subjectivity, which is less about the right answer to a problem and more about what approaches and perspectives are required to tackle a specific challenge.”

In practice, that broadening of perspectives becomes apparent in the classroom, where students coming from a range of majors meet to discuss core and integrative concepts.

“My path has always been in soil and agriculture,” said Aaron Price, a junior majoring in crop and soil sciences who is enrolled in the blue planet minor. “A lot of what I do is science-heavy, but this minor has been useful in getting a grasp on the applications side of the field, particularly in regard to policy. There’s a wide range of backgrounds, especially with climate and weather science, and that’s definitely broadened my point of view.”

For educators, having students with different perspectives lends an added dynamism to classroom discussions.

“When you have a class with students from different fields and disciplines, it greatly enriches the experience,” explained Senior Research Associate Carol Franco of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, who leads the new climate and society minor. “The best part of having an interdisciplinary group is that, when they discuss among themselves and challenge and learn from each other’s perspectives, I just sit back and let them run the show.”

Preparing for global challenges

Having the capacity to think critically — and broadly — isn’t just important for developing well-rounded students: it is a skill set that is increasingly sought by employers.

“If we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s that the challenges, experiences, and questions of today cannot be solved with a single set of tools,” said Stephen Biscotte, director of the Office of General Education. “By completing a Pathways minor, our students graduate with knowledge and perspectives that complement their major and broaden their skill set, details that prepare them for — and set them apart in — a job market that is increasingly connected and diverse.”

For senior Murari Parasu, the biodiversity conservation minor has given him a crucial perspective on his major in sustainable biomaterials.

“It’s provided a very important dimension to my learning,” he said. “Sustainability doesn’t include one thing: you have to consider how actions impact our lives, our future societies, and the natural world, including wildlife and the environment as a whole. They’re different, fast-moving parts, but it’s an important consideration for sustainability work.”

Written by David Fleming