Using Math to Fight Homelessness

(From Arches, a magazine published by Regents School of Austin)

AP Statistics student Vanessa Aguirre shares how their class harnessed the power of surveying, statistics and service to help the Mobile Loaves & Fishes ministry in their efforts to combat homelessness in Austin.

On a rainy Tuesday morning, the thirty-six AP Statistics students walked through the Community First! Village of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a local Austin non-profit focusing on the needs and betterment of the homeless community. The community village this organization founded is a beautiful, solitary sanctuary, with mini-homes right out of a housekeeping magazine and gardens dotting the landscape. Weaving through the clusters of houses and RVs, the high school students knocked on doors and waited with baited breaths, holding copies of a survey they helped design for the residents of the village.

“I was pretty nervous,” senior Lydia Strickland said.

Over the course of the morning, the students went from door to door, talking to the residents and sharing their stories, working to fill the survey as their school project that would help Mobile Loaves and Fishes (also known as MLF) in its aim to fight homelessness. The math students worked in tandem with MLF to, ultimately, answer the question: Does a lack of community cause homelessness? The high school students used ideas and concepts learned throughout the year to edit, carry out, and analyze a survey given to the residents living in the community village the non-profit has made.

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This question is largely based on Bruce K. Alexander’s “Rat Park” study, where Alexander and other scientists set up a study administering drugs to rats not in isolated cages, but in communities with a positive environment, and found that the drug intake of rats went down dramatically. This shows that environment and community play a significant role in drug use—and leads others to wonder if more than just drug use can be improved. The AP statistics and MLF worked together to explore this train of thought, and to reaffirm MLF’s community-based program.

Homelessness is, after all, a very real problem. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 564,708 homeless people in the United States in January of 2015, 15% of which were considered chronically homeless. More pragmatically, each homeless person costs taxpayers around $14,480 a year. When you do the math, that amounts to homelessness costing more than eight billion annually.

Not only does homelessness affect those directly involved, but it impacts society as well. Efforts to curb homelessness will have a positive impact on everyone. As a large and established homeless outreach ministry based in Austin, Mobile Loaves and Fishes attempts to do just that—curb, and ideally eventually end, homelessness and the factors behind it. In partnering with the AP Statistics students of Regents School of Austin, MLF hoped to gain more data on the effectiveness of their Community First! Village and the philosophy that poor environment and lack of community are the root problems of homelessness.

“We believe what we’re seeing anecdotally on the property is being verified through the statistical analysis, so we love this [the AP Statistics project,]” Alan Graham, Mobile Loaves and Fishes co-founder and director, said. “It confirms our model at Community First, that the only model that’s going to move the needle in a significant way is a kingdom-based model that’s all about community. So we need that data.”

Not only has the AP Stats project helped as a service, but it’s also helped as learning tool for the students, giving them a deeper appreciation of the concepts they learned in class.

“I liked the real-world application,” junior Emily Raeder said. “That was great.”

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This service-learning model is meant to lead students into developing higher-order critical thinking, in a real-world environment, where service to the community (such as alleviating homelessness) is presented as crucial to the course objectives and larger applications of education. Dr. Wilkerson, the Regents AP Statistics and Calculus teacher, sees service-learning as a valuable tool in math education.

“I think it helps because you get to use statistics in a real-life situation that’s meaningful in an immediate context,” he said. “Students realize that what you learn in math class aren’t things you would just have to do down the road, in the distant foggy future. Students learn the connection between helping people and using statistics, and they learn it on a deeper level.”

The project showed that math and making a difference in the world can go hand in hand. In order to help Mobile Loaves and Fishes and its residents, the AP Statistics students at Regents had to learn exploratory data analysis, data collection, probability, and statistical inference. On top of all this, students also got to practice their speaking skills. Students presented the results to representatives from MLF, the culmination of the class’s hard work.

The high schoolers also got a better appreciation of how even the little things can affect the world around them.

“I talked to this one man who talked about what a difference people who give out bags with goodies at stoplights made, that it made his day,” one junior said. “He said those things made a big difference. But we don’t put much thought into it.”

These math students may just be proof that math really can accomplish anything.

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Mathematics: Building Community

A while back I wrote a post on “Geometry and the Homeless.” That post was after my first year if partnering with Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community First on a service-learning project for my advanced geometry students. I have now been blessed to have worked with MLF on service-learning projects for the past three years.

Here is a video on MLF’s heart for the Community First project:

I have worked with geometry students on designing RV covers, gazebos, bike racks, and spiral herb gardens. Below is a picture of last year’s winning gazebo design and the current building progress:

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I am beginning my dissertation this summer. It will focus on the benefits of service-learning projects in mathematics and it will specifically examine the partnership between my students and MLF. So needless to say, you can expect a lot of future posts on this topic. Ultimately I believe that service-learning is an incredible way to impact a student’s appreciation of mathematics. To use terminology that I’ve written on before: service-learning is an excellent tool for cultivating mathematical affections.

While you can expect much more on this topic here, I wanted to share a recent video that I came across of other institutions partnering with MLF through the process of service-learning. The institution in the video below just so happens to be my alma mater of Texas A&M (Whoop!): Aggies design, build ‘tiny homes’ for homeless as part of curriculum – The Eagle: Local News.

Tiny House Video from TAMU College of Architecture on Vimeo.

Here are a few quotes from the local article that accompanied the video that speak to the impact of this type of project on the learning outcomes the students experienced:

Construction science senior Laura Malek said working on a project that was going to help a “great cause” was a huge motivator during the process. The project also mimicked a real-life work environment, she said, by bringing together students who wouldn’t normally work together.

“Today was so much fun,” she said. “It was amazing to actually see our work in place and actually get some outside feedback. It felt a little surreal to finally see it there today finished and painted. It meant a lot. People seemed to really enjoy the space and that felt really great after our hard work.”

An interesting side note is that the student quoted in the story is the sister of one of the students that was a part of the first ever service-learning project I initiated (see: Serving through Statistics).

Like I said, there will be a lot more to come on this.

Always feel free to contact me if you have any questions about implementing service-learning into your math class.

Geometry and the Homeless

This week I had the pleasure of writing a short note about my Geometry students’ spring project for my school’s newsletter. I thought I would include that below (as well as some pictures that weren’t included in the newsletter). I’ll provide a full write up here upon the completion of the semester.

Regents School of Austin eNewsletter

Regents high school students are partnering with a local ministry to apply their math skills. Please read this inspiring story from Mr. Josh Wilkerson. He is one of our math teachers in the School of Rhetoric.

~ Rod Gilbert, Head of School

1 Peter 4:10 commands us: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

I use this foundational truth as the basis to address that customary question of the high school mathematics classroom: When am I ever going to use these math concepts? God instilled a mathematical gift into every human being, enabling humanity to fulfill the purposes of the Great Commandment (to love our neighbors) and the Great Commission (to take the good news to all people). How might we employ our “math-mindedness” in serving others as the Apostle Peter commands?

Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF) ministers to the homeless community here in Austin. They recently purchased a tract of land on which they plan to construct an affordable living community for the chronically homeless called Community First. The acreage includes space for trailers, RVs, micro-homes designed by University of Texas architecture students, a large garden with animals, a workshop, chapel, and a medical facility all in the hopes of being a self-sustaining community. The vision of Community First seeks to overcome the homeless mindset and demonstrate that home is more than a physical structure. Home is relationships and far more than just a roof.

MLF graciously allowed our freshman geometry class to participate with them in this project. They have asked our students to utilize their understanding of geometry by designing an awning for RVs. These awnings provide shade and protection to the roof of the RV but it is also creative and energy efficient. Furthermore, these awnings contribute to the mission of MLF in developing relationships and fostering true community.

This past Monday the students visited the MLF Community First project site so they could see the immediate fruit of their labor. The students spent time hearing directly from MLF representatives about their vision and their heart for the homeless, and also about the very real need they have in their design process that the students can meet. There were many questions asked, many measurements taken, and then more questions asked. The MLF representatives were very accommodating and thrilled to see the excitement that the students of Regents had over this opportunity. At the end of the project, these same MLF representatives will travel to Regents to hear the presentation of each team of students and then select a winning design.

As their teacher, I marvel at these students as they mature to understand that learning has NO meaning unless it produces a sustained and substantial influence not only on the way people think, but also on how they act, feel, worship, and serve. I am excited to see what the remainder of this semester holds.

Josh Wilkerson
SOR Mathematics Appreciation Teacher
Appreciating AP Statistics and Geometry

Additional Pictures Not Included in the Newsletter:

Students hearing a presentation from MLF
Students hearing a presentation from MLF
Discussing layout with Dave Sekel of MLF
Discussing layout with Dave Sekel of MLF
Students analyzing the RV that they will design an awning for
Students analyzing the RV that they will design an awning for
Analyzing EVERY component of the RV
Analyzing EVERY component of the RV