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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Summer Institute 2017: Service-Learning in Mathematics

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Regents School of Austin, where I teach, will be hosting a summer institute for teachers and I’ll be leading a workshop on implementing service-learning in math courses. The target audience is math teachers at any level K-16 or pre-service math teachers.

Here are the details:

This workshop will assist you in developing successful service-learning projects in mathematics. Service-learning projects engage students in integrating their conceptual understanding of mathematics with the practical functioning of their local community. Ultimately students gain deeper content knowledge and a deeper appreciation for the role math plays in society.

Several examples of service-learning projects will be presented in detail from geometry and statistics, as well implementable ideas for other math courses. You will have the opportunity to brainstorm and work in conjunction with other educators to analyze the key components of a successful project, engage in discussion assessing the feasibility and logistics of implementing service projects in your own curriculum, critique project evaluation rubrics, and begin the design of your own service-learning project.

You will leave this workshop equipped to:

  • Determine the keys to a rewarding service-learning experience (after hearing personal testimony from students and community partners)

  • Modify and implement sample materials from past Regents projects (including project descriptions, calendars, and grading rubrics)

  • Connect the enduring understandings of your course with a community need

  • Evaluate student learning outcomes in keeping with your curriculum

  • Engage students with meaningful applications of math in the personal context of their local community

If you are interested, here is the link to registration page (that contains further details). 

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions and please share with colleagues that you think might be interested.

NCTM 2017: Cultivating Mathematical Affections through Service-Learning

This week I am leading a workshop at the 2017 NCTM Annual Conference in on “Cultivating Mathematical Affections through Service-Learning.” The talk is on integrating service-learning projects into mathematics curriculum, specifically with the goal of impacting students on an affective level. Since this is my dissertation topic, I’ve presented on it numerous times before – and now that my dissertation is done (!), I hope to finally be bale to devote more time to building out resources on this site. In addition to the resources that you will find below, feel free to check out some of the prior posts on service learning:

ABSTRACT:

This session will examine the benefits of service-learning projects in mathematics. Service-learning projects engage students in integrating their conceptual understanding of math with the practical functioning of their local community. Ultimately students gain deeper content knowledge and a deeper appreciation for the role math plays in society.

PRESENTATION:

You can click the image below to find the PowerPoint that accompanied my presentation.

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For many of the service-learning projects that my students have completed I am indebted to the willing partnership of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Here is some introductory information on this great ministry:

Community First! Village Goes Beyond Housing for Austin Homeless, from the Austinot

10 THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE IMPLEMENTING A SERVICE-LEARNING PROJECT:

The following are the foundational questions that you as an instructor should consider and reflect upon prior to implementing a service-learning project. This list is not meant to be chronological though some aspects will naturally precede others. Start by considering the course learning objectives and your method of assessing those objectives and then go from there.

1.What are the major learning objectives/big ideas/enduring understandings for your course?

2. What are real-world situations where students can apply the concepts studied in your course?

3. List some potential community partners along with some basic descriptors that may impact how your students work with each partner (ex: What is the size of the organization? What issues does the organization address? Is the organization non-profit, governmental, religiously affiliated? Etc.) In lieu of a partner organization you can also consider a general community need for students to address. List some general descriptors of the project involved in addressing this community need.

4. Look for potential matches between organizations on your list from question 3 and your responses to questions 1 and 2. If there are multiple potential matches then consider the pros/cons of each and list them. Be sure to recognize how your matching affects the organization of the project (large scale as a class v. small scale as groups), which in turn may affect your response to question 5 below.

5. Once you have begun narrowing potential community partners that offer opportunities for students to interact with course content, consider how will you assess students? What will be the final product? What expectations will you have for students throughout the project and how will you communicate that to the students?

6. How will students be organized to meet the objectives that they will be assessed on? Will students work as individuals, teams, as a whole class?

7. How will students be equipped to complete the project successfully? What will they have gained from the course up to the point of assigning the project that will aid them? What additional tools/skills/knowledge will students need as the project proceeds?

8. What will be the timeframe for the project? How will students be held accountable to the timeframe? At what points will students receive feedback on their progress?

9. Why should students care about the project? What will you do as an instructor to get student buy-in on the project?

10. How will students reflect throughout the project? What opportunities will you provide for students to pause and consider the work they have done?

HANDOUTS:

From my AP Statistics Project:

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From my Geometry project:

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EXTERNAL RESOURCES: