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Maker Movement Kids Week: Brainy is beautiful

Thinkerella Cherie Melancon Franz: turning STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math)

Thinkerella Cherie Melancon Franz: turning STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math)

The epiphany struck Cherie Melancon Franz last year, during her 11-year-old daughter’s birthday party.

“It was a spa party, with makeup and manicures,” recalls the New Orleans native and Ursuline Academy graduate.  “And I sat there cringing as I watched these beauty rituals, upset that I had gotten into this. I thought, even if I had a girly theme, how could I have done this better?”

The answer was Thinkerella, a mobile science lab for kids 3 to 13 that teaches that brainy is beautiful. “It just came to me,” Franz says. “I told my husband my idea, and he said, ‘Go for it.’”

She did, and soon Thinkerella was not only in demand for birthday parties, but also as an after-school option at 17 local schools. When boys wanted in, she came up with Thinkerfella. Now Mayor Mitch Landrieu has declared this week – March 2-8 – Maker Movement Kids Week presented by Thinkerella.

Franz, who admits she’s not a science type herself, hires teachers to write her curricula. Each Thinkerella session includes three hands-on, interactive experiments. The kids get lab coats and lime green safety goggles, and do things like make snow out of polymers or turn on Christmas lights with a paperclip and battery.

“Each module has all the supplies, directions and the lesson itself in a real-world application,” says Franz.

The concept combines science and art in crafty ways, says its creator. And for either gender. “Boys will make weapons out of anything,” she says with a laugh. “But girls are hyper-focused.”

Franz recalls one party getting out of hand – in a good way. The girls were engineering architectural designs with a Thinkerella kit of 500 straws with connectors. “We kept going an extra hour, because they just wanted to keep building.”

The artistic side of critical thinking comes with projects like beginning record-making. “You have strips of paper with little bumps on them. When you scrape them, it makes words,” explains Franz.

Franz pays her after-school teachers to lead Thinkerella workshops. She handles most of the birthday parties and scout outings herself. With as many as 27 sessions going on around town each week, it’s a lot to orchestrate for a woman who set sail with little more than an idea just a year ago.

Better than tutus and tiaras ...

Better than tutus and tiaras ...

It helps that New Orleans is a collaborative place for would-be entrepreneurs, Franz says. She got her first boost by winning one of the monthly Sobu “Barpreneur” pitches (read more about that here), at which participants sit on barstools and peddle their concepts.

“It was a bunch of men and me,” Franz says. “They all had suits and glossy products, and I thought, no way. I won lunch with Ted Williamson and the Idea Village people. It was great.”

These days, Franz runs her business from the Maple Street storefront where her dad cut hair for 50 years. “He retired and I said, what are you going to do with the shop?”

She plans a Thinkerella Camp there this summer. Meanwhile, she’s devoting this week to getting both girls and boys interested in being future makers and builders. Maker Movement Kids Week will focus on a specific topic -- science, technology, engineering, math, art -- each day. A free downloadable journal has daily subject-specific at-home experiments and fun facts. The week culminates with a Mini Maker Fair on Saturday and a ThinkerKids session on Sunday.

“The kids turn into little scientists,” says Franz of her diminutive Thinkers. “It’s far better than a tutu or a tiara.”

The Kids Maker Movement Week journal is available at mythinkerella.com.

The Mini Makers Fair will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 7 at The Lavin-Bernick Center at Tulane University. Click here for tickets (kids under 18 are free, but donations welcome)

The ThinkerKids Session takes place from 10 to 11 a.m. Sunday at 8218 Maple St. Click here for discounted online tickets.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]