‘ThinkerKids’ learn that science lurks everywhere
Last January, while driving home from a spa-themed birthday party she had thrown for her 11-year-old daughter, something was gnawing at Cherie Melancon Franz.
Although her daughter’s guests had had fun sampling the various beauty products, Melancon Franz desperately wished the girls had learned something while they were at it.
“They put on little robes and they got their nails painted, and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Is this really the message I want to be sending my 11-year-old?’” Melancon Franz recalled. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool even if they had made their own lip gloss? Then we could talk about chemistry (and) put some learning into the mix.”
Overnight, an idea for a new company – Thinkerella – was born, with Melancon Franz coordinating children’s birthday parties focusing on the “STEAM” fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
Thinkerella was so well received, Melancon Franz launched an offshoot – an afterschool enrichment program called “ThinkerKids” – in September that is now in operation at seven schools, five of them Catholic.
“I tell parents all the time: ‘Your kids might not remember everything we’re teaching them, but we’re planting the seeds,’” said Melancon, 37, a St. Dominic parishioner and graduate of St. Ann Elementary and Ursuline Academy, recalling one of her favorite Thinkerella modules: exposing youngsters to science through the prism of the movie “Frozen.”
In those sessions, participants make faux snow out of poly absorbent polymers; “Jumping Olafs” out of plastic cups and rubber bands – to see Newton’s Third Law of Motion in action; and build structures with toothpicks and marshmallows – to spur a conversation about engineering and architecture.
“When we make snow out of the polymers I tell them that those same polymers are used in agriculture to keep the soil moist and on movie sets to make it look like it’s snowing,” Melancon Franz said. “And I always tell them that there’s an 11-year-old boy in Florida who created a new kind of sandbag made out of the polymers that his parents had patented. So you’re never too young to be a scientist!”
The ThinkerKids afterschool program, which boasts a total enrollment of 120 children ages 3 to 13, currently is in place at five Catholic schools: St. Matthew the Apostle, Holy Rosary Academy, Holy Name of Jesus, Visitation of Our Lady and Ursuline Academy.
Melancon Franz hired certified teachers to create every lesson, and teachers from the host schools direct the experiments and followup conversations in a classroom or lab provided by the school. Each series of ThinkerKids rolls out over 12 weeks, with participants enjoying one hour of STEAM-focused fun per week.
“Each session is always (divided into) three self-contained activities of 20 minutes each. That’s perfect for their active minds,” Melancon Franz said, noting that each participant receives a lab coat and safety goggles that are theirs to take home at the semester’s end.
This year, the ThinkerKids will learn how forensic scientists take fingerprints; build and label the chambers and vessels of the heart; and plant a “garden-in-a-glove,” stuffing each “finger” with a seed-infused cotton ball and learning terms such as “germination.”
Simple, telling experiments
Participants also will be exposed to the principles of aerodynamics by fashioning “hovercrafts” out of DVDs and push-pull caps, the latter manipulated to release or restrict air from an attached inflated balloon.
“If they lift the cap, there will be air between the DVD and the floor, and it’ll go,” Melancon Franz said. “We talk about air hockey tables and air boats, which operate on the same exact concept.”
Other fun topics with a STEAM bent include the science behind cotton candy; learning about the double-helix orientation of DNA by constructing models out of Gummy Bears and Twizzlers; and studying – and re-imagining – the architecture of shotgun houses.
“I’m not an educator – I’m just a really fun mom – so I really wanted to keep the focus on the fun. We always do the experiment first and then we talk about what they just learned,” Melancon Franz said, describing a recent experiment in which her ThinkerKids made multi-colored 3-D glasses and donned them to see how color impacted their moods and visual acuity.
“They’re really excited, because they just did this awesome experiment, and they’re like, ‘That was math?’ ‘That was science?’” Melancon Franz said. “When they put on the lab coat and the goggles, they immediately turn into little scientists. They get just as excited about the lab coat and the goggles as they do about a tutu and a tiara or a cowboy hat.”
Melancon Franz said she is dedicated to yet another concept: Having teachers who are already in the trenches – and who know their students the best – facilitate the program and receive compensation for their time.
“My goal, besides introducing science and math in a super fun way, is to put money into teachers’ pockets,” Melancon Franz said. “I’m so excited to able to do that!”
Interest in program growing
In addition to the five Catholic schools, two other schools currently offer the ThinkerKids afterschool program: Cathedral Montessori (the early childhood program of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity); and St. George’s Episcopal.
Two other schools – St. Catherine of Siena and Trinity Episcopal’s Les Enfants program, will add a ThinkerKids program to their afterschool offerings in the spring semester.