March 4, 2022 –
Many young girls enjoy playing with fashion dolls. Jacqueline Means, however, was enamored with a science kit. She was equally captivated by YouTube videos that showcased experiments and the computer games that let her be a virtual surgeon.
“I would go to school and tell my friends about it, and they would look at me like I was crazy,” the Wilmington resident recalls. Their skepticism struck a nerve and led to a promise she made herself: “I’m going to prove to little girls — whether they want to hear it or not — that science is amazing.”
In 2017, Means started the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative to teach low-income girls of color about science, technology, engineering and math. Locally, the program has received support from Chemours, a Delaware-based chemical company, which donated $10,000. Other supporters include the Delaware Foundation for Science and Mathematics Education, JPMorgan Chase, Inspiring Women in STEM, All Things Charity and Brew HaHa!, a Delaware-based coffee shop chain.
In addition to funding, the initiative has received national notice. Means has appeared on the CBS program “Mission Impossible,” the “Today” show, “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and the “Steve Harvey Show,” among others.
Means has dubbed herself the “STEM Queen,” and it’s not such a stretch. The science whiz is a seasoned pageant participant and in 2019 earned the Miss Delaware’s Outstanding Teen title. She’s the first Delawarean to win the Miss Black USA Talented Teen crown.
The pageants, which helped fund her education, boosted the teenager’s poise. At age 19, she’s comfortable answering challenging questions. It helps that she has numerous high-profile TV appearances under her belt. But Means’ confidence comes from a variety of sources, including the nonprofit that she founded.
The youngest of two children, she credits brother Johnny’s science project for piquing her interest in science. Johnny and his dad, Johnny Means II, created a volcano out of papier-mâché. “Don’t touch it,” their father told a 7-year-old Means.
But she couldn’t resist. At night, she crept downstairs and mixed vinegar with baking soda to create an explosive reaction. “I was like, ‘This is incredible!’” Her mother, JoAnn, supported her interest and bought anatomy books when her daughter took an interest in medicine.
Like her brother, Means attended Delaware Military Academy, where she rose to the rank of Bravo Battalion Commanding Officer. She was president of the chess club, captain of the track and field team, an officer with Business Professionals of America and secretary of student government. She participated in cheerleading, basketball and dance, which is her talent for pageants.
She did all of this while pursuing her passion for sharing STEM studies with others.
Means teaches the way that she prefers to learn. “I am a kinesthetic learner,” she explains. “I like to work with my hands. There’s no better way to fully understand something than to do it yourself, and it’s OK to make mistakes.”
The Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative reaches out to girls in low-income communities like Southbridge, where Means and her family reside. Workshops, known as Girls Empowerment STEM events, attract about 100 young inner-city girls.
Participants make ice cream from dry ice and create non-Newtonian fluids such as ketchup, which changes viscosity when shaken. The youngers also make slime and elephant toothpaste and learn about 3D printing.
Since transportation can be an issue for attendees, she visits schools, churches and community centers. “If they can’t come to my events, it’s totally fine. I will come to them,” she says.
She could do neither throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic, so she taught herself how to edit and uploaded YouTube videos that show “just how awesome” STEM can be. She also conducted workshops via Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Not all the topics focus on science. Means, an avid video gamer, also addresses safety issues posed by the internet and bullying. The events also feature motivational speakers, such as otolaryngologist Dr. Joan Coker, Enid Wallace-Simms of Delmarva Power and Erin Hutt of YWCA Delaware.
The STEM events emphasize career opportunities and advancement. In Means’ community of Southbridge, many teens don’t graduate high school, let alone enroll in STEM programs. Meanwhile, women and people of color have long been underrepresented in the STEM fields. Means and her supporters want to change that, and she estimates her work has impacted more than 5,000 local girls to date.
Today, the STEM Queen is majoring in medical diagnostics on the premed track and minoring in neuroscience at the University of Delaware. In addition, she already has an internship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine under her belt.
Delaware, she says, has been a great place to make connections and garner support.
“Part of our strength is that we are small,” Means explains. “It’s common to see Gov. John Carney out and about at an event or meet Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long. Delaware is a place where you can build a future. You can make a name for yourself and have an impact — not just in your city, but in your entire state.”