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SAGE Musings: Guided Pathways - A Challenge and an Opportunity For 2YC Geosciences

Eric Baer, Highline College
published May 10, 2018 6:20pm

Guided Pathways is a national initiative/movement that has important implications for two-year college programs such as geoscience where students typically do not "discover" the discipline until they are enrolled in college. The initiative is intended to increase degree completion rates as well as reduce the number of "unused" credits students accumulate that are not required for the degrees they earn. One of the major goals of Guided Pathways is to provide students with a simplified sequence of courses to ensure that all of the courses they take will "count" toward their degree. However, moving between different pathways is typically difficult.

Regardless of what you think about Guided Pathways, this type of initiative is coming to many two-year colleges in response to multiple important forces, including the linking of retention and completion rates to funding in an effort to improve those rates. Therefore, this initiative may have more staying power than other similar programs. Guided Pathways are often mandated and implemented in a top-down fashion with involvement from the advising/student services side of the house, often taking faculty members by surprise.

In some states, including my own (Washington), the Guided Pathways approach seems to be implemented differently at every institution, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that students who indicate an interest in STEM are often funneled into Chemistry or Biology, while there is often a reduction of science options for non-STEM identifying students. This funneling of STEM students to Biology and Chemistry and reduction of options for non-STEM students can lead to the near elimination or sidelining of the geosciences. Furthermore, students may lose the ability to switch majors or transfer to the geosciences because of the difficulty in moving from a non-STEM pathway to a STEM pathway or between STEM pathways. If Guided Pathways is implemented rigorously, the likelihood of a student taking a geoscience class in their first or second year and switching their course of study to the geosciences will decrease significantly.

On the flip side, Guided Pathways maybe a tremendous opportunity for the geosciences if faculty are involved in planning options from the start. A geoscience course can be a terrific first course in a STEM pathway due to the fact that geoscience includes applications of all the major STEM fields. Often colleges have a difficult time finding a good first course for STEM-interested students because the course needs to be relevant to all the sciences as well as to engineering and mathematics. A well-designed introductory geoscience course can include all areas of STEM – applied math, physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, and more – so that students who know they want to go into a STEM field can move forward knowing more about the various options. At the same time, many other intro STEM courses are not as broadly relevant. Do most engineers need to take a biology class? Future mathematicians need chemistry? Typically not, so these courses don't meet the goal of of Guided Pathways to eliminate "extra" courses.

In addition, Guided Pathways often does not remove the need for distribution or general education courses, but asks that those courses be relevant and helpful to the pathway that students are on. This is an opportunity for faculty to show that their geoscience courses are applicable to non-STEM pathways or to develop courses that are relevant to non-STEM students in other pathways. Sometimes demonstrating this applicability is a matter of highlighting content within a traditional course; in other cases, it may require developing more tailored courses. As an example, at Highline we promote to the business program the strong focus on risk in our Geologic Hazards course in hopes that it will be seen as a more relevant science choice for their students. We have also talked to other programs about creating more specialized geoscience courses for their students – for example, a Geology of the National Parks course for the travel and tourism program. Some of you may have already done this by having specific courses aimed at pre-service teachers. InTeGrate also has a number of modules that could help tailor geoscience courses to non-STEM pathways, including foci on systems thinking and societal impacts.

I would be surprised if discussions about Guided Pathways are not happening at your institution. If they are, I urge you to get involved to help to shape the implementation. The impacts on your students, your courses, and your programs are likely to be profound.

If you want to know more about Guided Pathways, some additional resources are:

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