Teen founds initiative to bring STEM to young, inner-city girls: 'I want them to see that you can be a woman of color and still go into this field'

·4-min read

There’s a reason why 17-year-old Jacqueline Means is called the STEM Queen.

Means was born and raised in Southbridge, a neighborhood in Wilmington, Del., with less than 2,000 people that’s been nicknamed “Murder Town USA” — due. to its reputation as one of the nation’s most violent cities.

“Living there, I wasn’t really allowed outside for obvious reasons,” Means told In The Know. “My mom didn’t want me to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I had to find something to do indoors. And that something became STEM.”

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I think there is a sort of unspoken-ness that women can’t go into STEM, kind of a glass ceiling, sort of,” Means said. “No one really talks about it, but it’s there.”

In 2019, only 28 percent of workers in STEM-related fields were women. Additionally, women made roughly 20 percent less than their male counterparts in the same jobs.

Women of color, in particular, made up the smallest percentage of STEM degree holders and were more likely to hold lower-paying STEM jobs.

But none of these statistics impacted Means’ interest in conducting her own experiments and exploring science in her free time when she was in elementary school.

“I would go to school … [and] talk to my friends. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I tried this experiment yesterday, I did this today,'” she said. “And they would look at me like I had three eyes. And they were like, ‘Why do you like that? It’s so weird. That’s not fun.'”

Means wasn’t dissuaded by her friends’ disinterest. She just thought she had to show girls that science could actually be fun — then they’d understand.

“The idea to kind of host events where I can teach other girls about it and make it fun came to me when I was about 12 years old,” she explained. “I just took off. When I was 13, I started hosting my big events where I invited about 100 girls from the city of Wilmington to come to a full day of just fun, hands-on engagement with it and really just grew from there.”

The events evolved into the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative, a nonprofit aimed to offer girls — especially girls of color — more hands-on experiences with science, tech, engineering and math.

“Its main goal is to encourage and empower young, inner-city girls to embrace science,” Means said. “Even if it is a field that is still predominantly just white men, I want them to see that you can be a woman of color and still go into this field and have an impact.”

Means has watched her program go from 30 girls to almost 100. She hopes to see similar increases in the overall percentages of women in STEM and help get closer to closing the gap.

“It feels rewarding to have those little girls come up to me after all that planning, all those weeks of work, and time, and effort put in. And they come up and say, ‘Miss Jackie, you know, I really thought it was going to be super boring, my mom dragged me here. But I actually had a lot of fun, and I really want to come to the next one,'” she said. “It really makes you smile from ear to ear because it lets me know that I’m having a real impact.”

For now, Means hopes she can expand her program to the entire state of Delaware. Then, the entire country.

“The goal behind every single event I do, whether I have the girls come to me at a big Girls Empowerment STEM Event or whether I go to them in the schools or in the community centers, is to make science fun and accessible for them,” she said. “Even if a little girl is all the way in California, on the other side of the country, I want them to know that science is something that they can do and not just science, but science, tech, engineering, and math as a whole.”

You can help Means with her mission and donate here.

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