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A UD class is using math to help solve homelessness in Montgomery County

Raul pic.jpg
University of Dayton
Professor Rául Ordóñez uses differential equations and statistical models to examine changes over time in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Montgomery County and the reasons why.

University of Dayton Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Rául Ordóñez has a heart for helping people. He grew up in Ecuador where poverty is prevalent.

But until recently, he didn’t have an outlet for teaching UD engineering students to solve humanitarian problems. This year, UD's School of Engineering created a human rights in engineering minor.

His new class is called "Engineering Systems for the Common Good," and Ordóñez has decided to focus on the issue of homelessness.

Using real data from Montgomery County, the students will produce a dynamic model of homelessness and plug in various ideas to see what works.

Ordóñez refers to the problem as a system. "For example, a thermostat is a control system that regulates room temperature. The cruise control in your car regulates its speed. In the case of homelessness," he says, "the policies and interventions the county makes can be thought of as a control system to try and alleviate the problem — for example by providing more affordable housing."

Noah Blum is a fifth-year computer engineering major. He says you can’t just throw money at a problem. "Our first part was to model the population of Montgomery County, which seems kind of simple. And then we’re starting to do with two differential equations, model the change between the people who are securely housed and those who are at risk of homelessness."

Piper Fernwey already has a degree in biomedical engineering and is back in the classroom to study systems engineering with Ordóñez. She's not looking for a high-paying tech job. For the last decade, she's been a community organizer who's helped with food recovery.

"I have used my engineering brain and problem-solving skills gleaned from that education to really build systems to be really effective in my work," she says. Fernwey thinks this class is the right approach.

"I have seen in my community work that so often we’re addressing symptoms rather than changing the underlying system behind them and I’m really excited to pull engineers into that and teach them how to do that better."

Nearly 4,000 Montgomery County households experienced homelessness in 2021, spending at least one night in a community shelter or sleeping unsheltered.

Ordóñez says he will keep working on the problem of homelessness even after this class ends. He says even if students don't end up working directly for the common good, he hopes they keep in mind the societal consequences of the engineering decisions they make.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.