Austin-area high school students in STEM help shape Project Connect

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Project Connect is teaming up with high school students to design the future of transit. A pilot internship program focused on the Orange Line, a 21-mile light rail transit corridor.

The Orange Line stretches from north Austin, near Tech Ridge, through The Drag near the University of Texas at Austin down to Slaughter Lane in south Austin. Students who participated in this internship got to learn how the process works and share their input.

“That’s how we ensure we really fit into the fabric of the community,” John Rhone, the deputy program officer for Austin Transit Partnership, said. Rhone, who started as an intern himself in the Dallas transit agency, explained why he valued the young voices as he was once one of them.

The students focused on two light rail stations: the West Mall stop along The Drag and another stop along South Congress.

Along both bus stops, students recommended more options for pedestrians and bicyclists such as better infrastructure to support both and additional shade coverage to help minimize the impact of weather on rides. There are more than 20 stations along the Orange Line once complete sometime in around 2029.

Those behind the internship program selected students who go to schools along the Orange Line corridor to show them how their neighborhoods will transform. They added the experience allows them to gain the high school students’ input but also helps recruit the next generation of employees — students who consider themselves problem solvers like junior Bee Jackson

“I love being given a set of rules and challenges to like to figure your way out through and just come up with a solution,” Jackson said.

Jackson was one of 10 students selected. Out of those students, seven of them were girls.

“Representation is everything in any industry and in transit the majority of users are women and children but that is not reflective of the leadership or the industry of transit and transportation,” Kimmy Feldbauer, the project manager at AECOM, an infrastructure consulting firm, who selected the interns.

A report from the Census Bureau shows women account for nearly half of the country’s workforce but only make up less than 30% of the STEM workers.

Locally, Austin ranks as the top Texas city and the second-best Southern city for women who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), according to the Commercial Café 2021 Report. STEM jobs account for 12.6% of all jobs in Austin, with women holding 25.6 percent of those positions, approximately 18,667 jobs.

“By actively changing that and seeking out other leadership in women and non-binary folk to join this industry it’s really important to shape in the future and make it more successful,” Feldbauer added.

One day, Jackson hopes to be a part of that change.

“I think I’ll definitely try to do something in STEM,” she said.

Each student who participated in the six-week program got $1,000. CapMetro and AECOM plan to expand their internship program to next summer to other transit lines with more students. They will begin to take applications in the spring.

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