MEET THE STEM QUEEN
UD's Jackie Means uses pizzazz and flash to coax minority students into a love for science
Think of what it must be like to be a sharp, science-loving grade-school girl growing up in the shadows of urban despair—communities where there are no gleaming school labs, few inspiring mentors, and indifferent support for your dreams.
All around you, people suffer. Looking ahead, you see nothing. Then a young Black woman like Jacqueline Means enters your world.
The STEM Queen steps into class like a sparking high-amp wire, bearing flasks and gadgets and a brilliant grin as her eyes connect with the giggly, spellbound girls. Showy experiments keep their attention, but she also speaks to their hearts: “This is something that’s out there,” she wants them to know. “This is something you can do.”
Mesmerized by the fuming, foaming concoctions and engineering sleight of hand, the kids seem on the verge of deciding that science has a cool side after all. In some eyes, you even see an awakening, a glimpse of what might be.
For those girls, a new journey has begun.
Jackie Means dearly hopes it’s a journey that leads more young Black, brown (and yes, white) girls to success in the fields that leverage “STEM”: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. She senses she must somehow push against the systemic disadvantages and dismissive attitudes, the naysayers and dream-crushers.
She’s sick of a world where girls get called on last. Or not at all.
That commitment has only deepened since this Wilmington native first became the “STEM Queen,” many classroom performances and 5 long years ago. Now that she’s 18 and in college, her STEM Queen duties endure, even as she works toward a science career of her own as a freshman Medical Diagnostics honors scholar.
Already, her résumé credentials are formidable: She hosts a bubbly YouTube channel, has a side pursuit as a pageant contestant, and has become a regular on the TV talk circuit, delivering messy doses of can-do tabletop fun on The Today Show, Access Hollywood (twice), The Dr. Oz Show and The Steve Harvey Show. (On The View, co-host Whoopi Goldberg remarked, “If there’s anyone I would nominate for the Medal of Freedom, this girl is it.” Means was flabbergasted. “That was pretty cool.”)
She’s even been tapped as a series regular on the CBS show Mission Unstoppable with Miranda Cosgrove, which seeks to inspire more STEM excitement among teen girls.
All this high-level attention has easily exceeded the aspirations Means had when she conceived the STEM Queen persona at age 13, just before entering those perilously vulnerable teen-age years in one of Wilmington’s toughest neighborhoods.
“When I was younger growing up in Southbridge, I wasn’t allowed outside by my mom, and I needed something to do indoors. That something was science,” she says. A barrage of home experiments ensued, along with a yearning to one day make it into medical school.
“I said, ‘Mom, I really love science and I love to blow things up, but when I tell people at school, they look at me like I have three eyes.” Beneath their scorn, she also sensed a curiosity vulnerable to discovery. And she saw a way past the resistance, a way to change the doubting minds.
The STEM Queen was born.
“My motivation was: I want kids to do it to. If they do, it can change their mindset, and even open doors,” says Means, no stranger herself to leadership’s potential: As a high schooler at the Delaware Military Academy, she rose to commanding officer of Bravo Battalion, overseeing some 350 cadets.
Such operational savvy helped her conceive and launch the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative nonprofit, and successfully secure funding for it from generous corporations and foundations. But at its heart, the initiative thrives mainly on Means’ (and the Queen’s) unceasing spirit, along with the belief in the inevitabilities of physics: Slow, steady pressure on a system will inevitably make things move.
“There’s definitely a long way to go, because things have been the same for so long,” Means says. “But the change has got to come, slowly but surely, and I think moving slowly is better than not moving at all.”