Each year, students in the University of Virginia’s Accelerated Master’s Program in Systems Engineering for working professionals complete a project that demonstrates their mastery of systems engineering concepts and methods. They do so by applying them to a large-scale, complex system of national significance.

The Just Transition Fund, founded in 2015, helps communities facing severe economic distress from a declining coal economy and the closure of coal-fired power plants and mines. By helping local leaders transition to a new economy, the fund is working to build resilient communities in coal-affected areas by strengthening local economies and promoting equitable, low-carbon solutions.

In 2018, Just Transition Fund’s co-founder and executive director, Heidi Binko, presented a challenging problem to the master’s class: “Help the Just Transition Fund develop a methodology for prioritizing communities to guide the fund’s investments. The methodology should identify and rank the communities with populations most severely economically affected, while also taking into account the on-the-ground capacity and statewide policy environment.”

The fund also asked the students to cluster or group the results in a way that would speed its staff’s learning about what works in communities with similar attributes.

Accelerated Master's Program class photo

Three teams of five to six students attacked the challenging problem, starting with gaining a deeper understanding of the complex economic problems confronting coal-affected communities. Economic problems include job loss, loss of property tax revenue from closing power plants, and loss of revenue associated with severance payments and royalties paid to states and local communities where coal is extracted.

The teams searched for data from local, state and federal sources, as well as from private industry and other nonprofit organizations. Using advanced data analytics and data visualization tools, students identified clusters of similar communities based on the criteria that guide the fund’s investments.

The teams also provided tools that the fund can use to evaluate its investments as it learns more about the effectiveness of different strategies to help coal-affected communities make the transition to a new economy that is both sustainable and equitable.

“Integrating an entire year’s worth of knowledge gained and lessons learned into application against a challenging, real-world problem, the capstone week is an intense effort,” said Mike LaPierre, a student in the class.

“From initial research, fact-finding and subject-matter expert interviews, to preliminary analytics and modeling, or final report delivery and client presentation, each team member is pushed beyond their comfort zone in some way. The end result is a thoroughly rewarding experience that accurately depicts how teams of differing skills sets must come together to deliver creative solutions.”

“We’re gathering a lot of data about the effect that the changing coal industry and power sector is having on local communities,” Binko said. “There’s a tremendous amount of need across the country. By engaging systems engineers and thinkers at UVA to conduct this study, the fund now has an evidence-based approach for making investment decisions that will help us strategically expand our impact and scale our programs.”