All images and video courtesy of the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative.
Jacqueline Means, aka ‘The STEM Queen’, lives in Wilmington, Delaware’s Southbridge neighborhood – an area that’s been dubbed ‘Murdertown USA’ by Newsweek. From a young age, her mother insisted that Jacqueline and her brother play inside only. She didn’t want her children to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When Means’ older brother had to make a paper mache volcano for science class, she stepped in to assist. At only 8 years old, Means was captivated by the project. She started doing more and more science experiments, and a passion was born.
The Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative Coming to Life
With a new love for all things science, Means wanted to share the exciting science experiments with her elementary school friends. She was surprised when she was met with a lack of interest.
“They would all look at me like I was crazy, and I was like what do you mean you don’t think this is cool, this is the coolest thing in the world,” Means said. “They thought it was lame, and I couldn’t believe that they weren’t as excited about it as I was.”
After a few more years, 12-year-old Means was determined to overcome the ‘STEM slander’.
“STEM is amazing and I’m going to prove it to these kids,” said Means.
Thinking back to the way she fell in love with all things STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Means wanted to give her friends the same hands-on experience.
“I wanted them to do hands-on experiments, because to me, the best way to learn is to do it yourself and watch it happen before your very eyes,” says Means.
With Means’ mother apprehensive about having a large party in their home, the idea gained traction as Means realized she could turn the event into an initiative, partnering with local organizations for the venue, and fundraising for the large amount of experiment supplies and materials needed.
The first event with 35 girls was a success, and the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative was founded. Today, the 18-year-old has 100 young intercity girls in attendance at each event about four times a year.
Changing Mindsets: Young Girls Embracing STEM
The main events Means runs through the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative are Girls Empowerment STEM Workshops for youth six to fourteen years old. Means gives the girls supplies for the day (trays, goggles, aprons, gloves, chemicals for the experiment, etc.) and leads them through fun experiments like making slime, ‘elephant toothpaste’, or dry ice ice cream.
“We do all kinds of fun, hands-on, exciting experiments to show them STEM is cool, and STEM is something you can do because you’re doing it right now,” says Means.
Means brings in empowering female speakers to the events, featuring women who have jobs that the girls wouldn’t necessarily think involve these STEM subjects. She wants to show the girls these positive female role models they can look up to in real life, not just on social media or television.
“I brought in my good friend Dr. Teri Quinn Grey who worked at DuPont. She told this awesome story of how she got started on her STEM journey and has made all kinds of things in the lab – from lipsticks to bombs,” said Means.
She’s showing girls that they might not think the job they want is related, but almost everything has aspects of STEM.
“I also brought in the city’s treasurer, Velda Jones-Potter, to show that being a treasurer involves a lot of math and technology,” said Means. “Another job you might not think involves a lot of STEM.”
The event wraps up with a healthy lunch and a nutritionist speaking about how the young girls can care for their body and stay active.
Bringing Events to Girls
Not all girls the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative is trying to reach have access to transportation to the empowerment workshops. So, in between these larger events, Means brings hand-on learning to community centers, schools, and churches in Delaware and surrounding states.
The STEM Queen has garnered some attention from the impact she is making on young lives. She has been featured on national TV shows like the Steve Harvey show, the Today Show, Access Hollywood, and the Kelly Clarkson show. The STEM Queen is also now a regular on Mission Unstoppable on PBS.
“I am so grateful to be in the position I’m in – to inspire young girls to believe in themselves, to have confidence in themselves, and go into STEM fields,” says Means.
The Balancing Act
As a current rising sophomore at University of Delaware, Jacqueline Means has a lot on her plate. She’s majoring in medical diagnostics and is on a pre-med track with a neuroscience minor.
But the teen makes sure she still has time for fun. Between studying, her initiative responsibilities and many extracurriculars, she is teaching herself to speak Japanese and Korean, plays PC video games, and loves watching her favorite show, Grey’s Anatomy.
The key to balancing all of her activities? A very detailed calendar.
“I have 3 whiteboards in my room to keep me on track. One whiteboard with goals for the year, one whiteboard with goals for the month, and one whiteboard for things to do for the week. Those things really keep me on task,” says Means.
“Whenever I look at them, they are a reminder that even though there’s a lot I have accomplished, there’s a lot more work to be done,” says Means. “Only 29% of the STEM workforce is female and it is my mission to increase that percentage. I want to do my part, at least in my state, because young women belong in STEM, they just haven’t been shown that yet.”
Challenging and Rewarding Moments
Means has found there’s still a lack of support in the community to teach young girls about STEM, but she isn’t discouraged.
Funding for the initiative started as a major challenge–for the first four years everything for the initiative was funded by Means and her mom, who put off paying bills to buy supplies for the events. Means would do bake sales to raise money in the early days. Today she secures funds by working with local businesses like DuPont, J.P. Morgan, and Verizon.
When she sees the spark of excitement and impact she has on the girls, it makes the challenges worth it.
With messages from mothers who say their daughters are now interested in science and math, Means knows she’s making a difference. Means describes a recent message that came in from a six year old girl’s mom. The girl wanted to be a teacher, and now after the event she wants to work at NASA.
“When I know I’ve worked with over 5,000 girls, it’s like, of course I’m having an impact,” says Means. “But it’s different when I get those personal stories of hearing that I really made a difference in someone’s life.”
Advice to Students Who Want to Change the World
The STEM Queen has some advice for students looking to make a difference in their community.
“You are never too young or too old to make a difference,” states Means.
“Everyone has time to give back, it’s just what we choose to do with our time. People make time to get their nails done, get a haircut, and go to the movies. Everyone can spare one hour a week or month to give back, regardless of their age or background,” Means says.
The 18-year-old encourages others to share their talents because no matter what it is, there’s someone out there that will benefit from your help.
STEM Queen’s Future
The future shines brightly for Means who is on track to attend John Hopkins School of Medicine. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree she plans to work towards a medical degree and PhD to enter the field as a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Currently interning at the neurosurgery department at John Hopkins, Means has always been fascinated by the brain. She is looking forward to a future of continuing to work with young children and understand the human brain.
Being only one hour from her hometown of Wilmington, Means plans to come back for events as she continues through college. The STEM Queen is dedicated to keep providing these impactful events to young girls.
Learn more about the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative, or donate here. Read more Rustic Spirit stories.