Jacqueline Means and Steve Harvey got scientific on his show in March./Courtesy of the Steve Harvey show
Accepting that Jacqueline Means is just 16 years old may take some work.
The outgoing Southbridge teen holds court at the Concord Pike Brew HaHa!, bouncing between tables, aglitter in primrose tulle and a gold sash that declares her “Miss Delaware Outstanding Teen 2019.”
A couple takes a break from their order of turkey and brie with fig jam to smile as Means pops by to say, “Hi! Are you familiar with STEM?”
If it seems atypical that a superfan of science, technology, engineering and math was eager to become a beauty queen, Means might have agreed with you back when she was 13.
“I once thought pageants were so catty, that ‘smart’ girls didn’t do them, that they were just about parading girls around,” she says. “I was wrong. Pageants are about empowerment—giving girls a platform to advocate for whatever cause they’re really passionate about. Mine is spreading the message to girls that not only is STEM exciting, but that it’s for them.”
“I became fascinated with science when I was 9,” Means continues. “Growing up in Southbridge—called ‘Murdertown, USA’—my mom didn’t really want my brother and [me] playing outside and getting caught up in violence. So, we stayed inside and had to entertain ourselves.”
One day, that entertainment involved mixing baking soda and vinegar. The resulting chemical reaction sparked something in Means as she watched the fizzy, bubbling curiosity. “Is this science?” she asked her mom. Means soon began to spend hours watching videos of experiments and devouring science texts. Eventually she stumbled upon a troubling U.S. Department of Labor statistic: “Women make up [only] 29 percent of the STEM workforce,” she says. “I thought, less than half? That’s unacceptable.”
So the self-identified “STEMinist” founded the Wilmington Urban STEM Initiative, a nonprofit that has reached hundreds of young girls so far. Means’ superhero alter ego, “STEM Queen,” suits up in a white lab coat and goggles to host empowerment parties aimed at getting girls—particularly those of color—pumped about a STEM career.
“At one event, a really cute girl walked in. I said, ‘Hi, everyone. We’re going to be doing some science experiments today.’ As soon as I said the word ‘science,’ I saw her be like, ‘Um, WHAT?’” Means says. “When I started the first experiment—making slime—her eyes began to sparkle and she said, ‘This is science?’ Being able to watch the mind-set around STEM change before my eyes is such a joy.”
The events are one part experiment to one part mentorship. “Many of these girls come from situations where maybe they don’t have a mentor, so while I have their attention, we talk about other stuff—bullying, social media etiquette, relationships,” she says.
Professional woman of color, like Wilmington city treasurer Velda Jones-Potter and DuPont’s materials and global tech leader Dr. Teri Quinn Gray, will stop by to talk about how they utilize STEM. “Representation is very important to me,” Means says. “These girls can’t know they can do these things if they don’t see people who look like them doing it.”
The STEM Queen’s kingdom extends beyond Wilmington. She was a guest speaker at fashion maven Tory Burch’s “Embrace Ambition” empowerment summit, and just last March, she charmed Steve Harvey’s audience on his talk show “Steve.”
“Oh, my gosh, that was so fun,” Means says. “Mr. Harvey is very funny and helped me feel confident.”
Outside her burgeoning STEM empire, the Delaware Military Academy student still has to sweat normal teen stuff like homework, fangirling over “The Walking Dead,” her basketball schedule, video games and, obviously, mastering a running whip-stich, which she practices in her room while binging “Grey’s Anatomy”—the future neurosurgeon is nine seasons into suture training. Means considers it an early start on medical school. “Dr. Alexa Irene Canady, the first African-American female neurosurgeon, is my hero,” she says.
While Means laments Delaware’s STEM curriculum—“It doesn’t feel like a priority, unfortunately”—she’s hopeful her nonprofit will be a catalyst for change.
“I am happy to do my part to make Wilmington a better place and to encourage girls to embrace STEM,” she says. “It’s upsetting when I see smart girls with no one to believe in them—but I can be that person. If 10 years after one of my events, a girl is thinking about college and says, ‘Hey, that science day was fun,’ that’d be pretty cool.”
Catch Jackie at stem-queen.com.