Natasha Smith Walker, the Executive Director of Project Exploration, a STEM program that has been around since 1999 recently spoke at the White House. | Shanel Romain

Natasha Smith Walker, the executive director of Project Exploration, a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] program that has been around since 1999, recently spoke at the White House. I recently talked to her about the experience.

On how she got into a STEM career

I started my college career in architecture. I was an architect major for about three years and I became discouraged. I experienced something that probably many women have experienced. I was one of very few women and one of very few women of color. I found myself not being in a space that I felt good about being in. I changed my major to political science. 

I came to Project Exploration in 2013. At that time I was coming to the organization when they were trying to decide what they were going to do with the organization. I took it on and I had a particular program I had to run called sisters for science, which is one of our hallmark programs. I hired some college girls all in stem-related fields. Their job was to put together some activities to teach younger girls. I made sure to get adult women to present in their classes.

There were high school girls there listening to what the college girls were saying, and the college girls were interested in what the adult women were saying and I thought this is where the magic is. For a girl to see another young woman to see an adult woman came full circle for me. It was that connection.

On Project Exploration

We are approaching our 25th anniversary. And our focus has always been on ensuring that young people in communities like Austin gain access to high-quality STEM programs. 

The reason why this is so important is because right now we recognize that we will need four million people to take on stem-related jobs.  Anything from HVAC technicians to civil engineers. What we are seeing is the workforce is not reflecting the representation in our community.

We strive to make sure that our Black and brown young people really get access to STEM programming. We want them to learn from people who they look like. We want them to inspire other people and help them learn about the different careers that exist in STEM. For example, a turbine operator makes six figures and they need a certification and you can’t find people. Companies are recruiting for these jobs.

On her White House visit

In May, Dr. Alandra Nelson, of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, visited Project Exploration.

I had the opportunity this [month] to speak at the White House with the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They’re releasing something called the STEM Equity Alliance what that’s aiming to do is making sure young people who have traditionally been left out of the equation — who have not had access to STEM, have not had the opportunity to code or play with a robot.

This initiative is calling people to the table to say, ‘We need to do something now and we need to do something different.’