Cressana Williams-Massey (far left) at Actua award ceremony with fellow recipients from McMaster University


Cressana Williams-Massey is delighted to share the good news: The Smith Engineering Black Youth in STEM program has won the 2023 Actua Experience Award.

Handed out every year by Canada’s leading STEM outreach organization, the honour celebrates the work of Actua’s university and college members in inspiring Black youth to develop a love of STEM learning. 

“It means a lot,” says Williams-Massey, the team lead of Black Youth in STEM (BYiS). “It’s an acknowledgement and also an acceptance that cultural differences exist among Canadian K-12 youth and that these cultural differences influence how STEM education is perceived and applied.”

Launched in September 2020, Black Youth in STEM is an outreach program all about getting local kids interested in exploring STEM subjects in a Black-positive space, and having a lot of fun doing it. Some of the programming, which is free for participants, is delivered by Smith Engineering students who identify as Black.

All of the programming is split into four models:

  • an in-person, out-of-school club for K-12 students in Kingston;
  • a virtual academic support and mentorship program;
  • week-long STEM summer camps at Queen’s; and
  • two- to three-day summer workshops for underserved youth in the Greater Toronto Area.

What happens in each model can vary widely, but it follows the Ontario science and technology curriculum. Some activities include programming robots. Others get students to design search-and-rescue missions or pedestrian crosswalks. One of the most popular exercises involves extracting DNA from a strawberry with the Queen’s Cardio Pulmonary Unit. “That’s an exciting activity that the older kids really love,” says Williams-Massey with a laugh.

Black Youth in STEM has so far engaged over 580 youth in Kingston and the Greater Toronto Area through the in-person programming, and another 400-plus across the province through the virtual workshops.   

Williams-Massey says she is most proud of the high-quality programming that BYiS delivers and the positive effect it has on participants, both academically and socially. “We hear about our positive impact from parents — they testify all the time — which is so great.”

Seeing those impacts herself is one of the big reasons why Williams-Massey got into STEM education and then joined BYiS soon after she arrived in Canada in 2021.

She grew up in Jamaica and has degrees in chemistry and biochemistry, but just as she was finishing her undergraduate degree, the global recession of 2008 hit. No local employers were hiring in her field, so she decided to try teaching high school science instead. She thought she would pivot back to industry when the economy turned around.

The economy did eventually turn, but Williams-Massey went on to earn a postgraduate diploma in science education and a master’s degree in chemistry. “When you’re teaching, it’s rough when you’re just starting out, but then you bond with the kids when you nurture them, mentor them, and see them excel. It changes you into a better person,” she says. “I just fell in love with it. It felt like home.” 

Mentorship was one of the main reasons BYiS won the Actua Experience Award. In its award note, the Actua selection committee wrote that it “was particularly impressed with the strong focus on mentorship at all levels of the program, from leadership to youth.”

That emphasis is definitely on purpose, says Williams-Massey. “It’s well documented that North American Black youth need to see role models engaged in STEM fields in order to pursue these STEM-related careers and education. Otherwise, they’re just going to mimic who they see on social media or TV.”

Mentorship will continue to be a big part of BYiS in 2024. The program will be especially focused on increasing the number of Black women in STEM this year through a new “Sistas-in-STEM” club. The plan is to also launch a new Environmental Science Club, as well as develop more problem-solving and critical thinking skills in young kids through the “Kiddies Robotics Club.” Plus, Williams-Massey is hoping for more partnerships with Indigenous Futures in Engineering and to explore land-based learning.

It's a lot of hard work, according to Williams-Massey, enthusiastically done by every member of the team. But it’s worth it, she adds, and this award is proof. “Winning this award shows that specialized programs like Black Youth in STEM are not separatist movements, but a means of unifying kids from all over the world using STEM education.”


Williams-Massey with Actua CEO Jennifer Flanagan