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Design Flexible Pathways to Increase Opportunity and Access for All Students

Engineering professor Adan Vela, PhD, shares his passion—and advice—for providing access to college students facing multiple challenges.

Educator

Adan Vela, PhD

Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems, University of Central Florida, Orlando

PhD, MS, and BS in Mechanical Engineering

Dr. Adan Vela grew up in a family dedicated to fostering equity in STEM education. This began with his father, Charles, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador as a teenager, worked his way through college, and became an engineer. “My father was a brilliant man. He coined the term STEM in the ’90s and helped create the first STEM Institute for teens,” says Vela. “He believed that, for America to succeed as a country, we have to recognize that there is a brilliance and intelligence in all students—African-American students, Hispanic students, Arabic students, women—and that we have to foster that brilliance.”

Today, as an engineering professor at the University of Central Florida, Vela has made it his mission to continue the work of promoting equal opportunity and access. One of his largest initiatives to date is researching the benefits of revamping STEM curriculums to create more flexible pathways. Unlike previous four-year maps, which were rigid and based on a full-time course load, Vela is identifying STEM pathways that make it easier for all students to succeed. These pathways are designed to accommodate the busy lives of part-time adult students who are also full-time employees, parents, and caregivers. Interestingly, Vela’s research has found that this approach can also beneficial for full-time students who are fresh out of high school.

“We’re telling the full-time student, ‘Hey if you want to take a semester off, it’s OK because we have a model for that,’” Vela says. Given the unique challenges that the current pandemic has presented, this flexibility may be more important than ever before.

Bottom line, says Vela: “We need to give students a pathway that works, no matter what.”

Below, he shares tips for other educators interested in doing just that.

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Context

“Brilliance is spread pretty evenly, but opportunity is not. Many students today are facing unique challenges that four-year institutions were not set up to handle. We need to design pathways that are more adaptable to students from all backgrounds and facing all types of challenges.”

— Adan Vela, PhD

Course: ESI 4523 Simulation Systems

Description: Methods and procedures for simulating large-scale systems with digital computers.

Quote

“Brilliance is spread pretty evenly, but opportunity is not. Many students today are facing unique challenges that four-year institutions were not set up to handle. We need to design pathways that are more adaptable to students from all backgrounds and facing all types of challenges.”

—Adan Vela, PhD

Vela’s strategies for reimagining curriculum maps and sequencing

Vela’s research has led him to some effective solutions that can maximize each student’s prospects for success throughout their academic careers. Here are five ways that he has adjusted the rigid curriculum maps of yesterday to create flexible pathways that can be followed by anyone, regardless of their age, course load, and outside responsibilities.

1. Use scaffolding to help students build academic maturity

Vela defines academic maturity as having “skill sets and academic readiness developed through taking a series of classes that are closely related to one another.” Scaffolding courses so that they build on a student’s existing (and increasing) knowledge and abilities can lead to greater success as they move forward. For example, if a student is majoring in physics or engineering, Vela recommends they take their thermodynamics and physics classes soon after they have completed their math classes. “If they wait until their senior year to take those courses, they will not have been using those math skills,” he explains. “If those skills atrophy, the students may not do as well.” This type of advice works whether a student is taking one class per semester or six.

2. Organize courses based on sequence, not semester

Many colleges provide charts that are organized by semester and based on a four-year (or two-year) program. But many first-generation students will not be taking a full-time course load—and they have no idea how to revise the original plan, says Vela.

Instead, Vela recommends that the curriculum be organized as a flowchart that shows the sequence in which courses in each major should be taken, rather than breaking them out by semester. This works well for transfer students, who typically enter the university with two years’ worth of general education coursework and need to take two years’ worth of technical classes in their major. Four-year students can follow the same sequence, though they usually begin their technical courses during their sophomore year.

3. Reevaluate which courses require a prerequisite

Removing prerequisite requirements can increase flexibility for students, says Vela. “One of the really big questions we have to answer is whether this will do a disservice to the student,” he says. In fact, he recommends reexamining all courses in a major, because the opposite can also be a problem in long-standing programs. Sometimes, he asserts, adding a prerequisite will leave students better prepared to proceed. “For example, there’s a class called Deterministic Methods for Operations Research and another called Stochastic Methods in Operations Research,” says Vela. “In our university, they are not connected, but I think they should be.”

Vela also notes that, even when classes are not labeled as prerequisites, their relationship to each other still matters and should be considered when creating curriculum flowcharts. For example, Probability and Statistics is a prerequisite for both Empirical Methods and Simulation Systems. Vela’s research has found that, though Empirical Methods is currently not a prerequisite to Simulations Systems, students who take the path of Probability and Statistics – Empirical Methods – Simulation Systems tend to do much better than students who go from Probability and Statistics directly to Simulation Systems, since Empirical Methods applies statistics to engineering.

A Family's Legacy of Inclusion

When Adan Vela was a teenager, his father Charles and his colleagues created the first STEM “summer camp” known as the STEM Institute, where middle and high schoolers spent eight weeks learning about topics such as physics in 3D, computer programming, and vector mechanics. Not only was it unheard of to teach the material to students this young, but it was also groundbreaking that most of them were from underrepresented groups and underprivileged families. “I had friends [in the Institute] whose parents didn’t graduate middle school, but they went on to get their PhDs and now teach college courses,” says Vela. “I get a little emotional about it sometimes.”

Adan is not the only Vela to carry forward his father’s passion: His sister Veronica was involved in Teach for America; his brother Patricio is now a professor in the school of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech, where he mentors as many underrepresented students as possible. And until recently, Patricio’s wife Patricia—an immigrant who juggled a full-time job while attending college at the University of California, Berkeley—taught and mentored mathematics students at Agnes Scott College in Georgia.

“I’m very proud of continuing my whole family’s legacy,” says Vela. “We’ve been raised to understand how we can use our knowledge and advocacy and efforts to teach and to provide opportunity. I think [that] when you understand my background, you understand why I do what I do. I see this as a way I can do some good in the world.”

4. Consider which courses to offer more frequently

For students studying part-time, it is important that foundational courses be offered multiple times a year so they do not miss out or lag behind. “If a student has to take a class that’s only taught once a year, that could be a destroyer,” says Vela. “One of the pieces we’re figuring out is which classes should be taught in the summertime.”

Vela also recommends identifying classes with a high failure rate and offering those in summer, too. This can allow students to retake a course without throwing off the subsequent semester or year.

5. Act as an unofficial advisor to the students in your courses

At some large schools, one-on-one advising simply does not happen—or advising is done by educators with degrees in a different field. “When advisers are not engineers, they don’t see the relationships between classes that the engineering faculty might [see],” says Vela. This is why he tells all of the students in his courses that he is willing to look at their previous course list and advise them as to whether they are on the right track or let them know which courses they should take next.

Getting a peek at their schedule early in the semester also helps Vela identify students who may have a tougher time in his course. “I tell them, ‘You should have taken XYZ before my class, but it’s OK if you didn’t. Just see me during office hours for help with the problematic stuff.’”

The bottom line, says Vela, is that all students need to be met where they are—and empowered to take their learning to the next level.

“Let’s give them access. Let’s give them opportunities,” he says. “To do that, we need to give them pathways to success.”

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