The magic and adrenaline of watching rockets launch into outer space while growing up in Florida inspired Lisa Bergantz, now a resident of Stansbury Park, to pursue a career as a scientist.
The launches left a lasting impression on her, as did simple projects like diagraming the human eyeball in the third grade. She remembers a seventh-grade teacher who encouraged her curiosity and steered her even more in the direction of science by reinforcing her abilities.
Her positive experiences in childhood taught her that she liked science, that she could do science, and gave her confidence that she was good at science. Eventually, she graduated with a degree in molecular biology and a minor in chemistry.
Her career as a pharmaceutical representative was short-lived when she chose to become a stay-at-home mom after the birth of her first child.
Bergantz said it is one of her greatest wishes to instill the same confidence and love of learning in her own children that she developed when she was young. Before her baby was even crawling, Bergantz was compiling lists of fun and deceptively educational activities to do down the road.
Three years ago, she began posting her ideas on her blog www.smmartideas.blogspot.com. S.M.M.A.R.T is an acronym for science, math, music, art, reading and timeout -- the final category a catchall for miscellaneous activities. She also shares her ideas on "Good Things Utah," where host Nicea Degering commented to Bergantz on the Nov. 9 episode that her ideas have helped Degering plan successful parties as a room mother in her daughter's first-grade class.
Bergantz is now the mother to three daughters, ages 6, 4 and 2, and an infant son. Her projects are geared toward young children, beginning around the age of 3.
She has shared more than 150 simple ideas with parents and caregivers. Bergantz prides herself on coming up with activities that don't take a lot of planning or preparation and can usually be done with items found around the house. "It's not your typical craft blog. I don't like to spend money," she said of her need to keep the projects low-key.
The activities serve as platforms for educational conversations. "Vocabulary is a big part of it," she said. "I suggest using the correct vocabulary. It gives kids familiarity with new words and is an advantage to them when they start school."
For example, one of the first "experiments" she performed with her kids -- one that has remained a household favorite -- teaches about the process of "expansion" and "contraction."
She takes a jumbo marshmallow and scratches a face on the surface with a toothpick, dipping the toothpick in food coloring to outline the face. The kids love to watch the smiling marshmallow expand in the microwave and contract when taken out. Bergantz uses the opportunity to have a brief discussion on the process that is happening to the marshmallow, and the kids are having so much fun they don't realize they are learning.
Another quick trick is to add a few drops of dish soap to water in a cup or bowl and use a drinking straw to create a mounting pile of bubbles by blowing into the water. The kids giggle and have a great time while Bergantz takes the activity one step further by comparing the thin skins of the bubbles to the membranes of cells.
The hydration project
For the holidays, Bergantz has compiled multiple activities that take advantage of the abundance of bright, fresh cranberries, available at grocery stores for around $2 per bag. (See accompanying story.)
Something as simple as laying a fresh cranberry in a sunny place and watching it shrivel is enough to get little minds going. She has found that children love to discover how the berry has changed each day.
It gets them familiar with the scientific method of observation, Bergantz said. And, it teaches them the words "dehydrate" and "rehydrate."
Once the berry is dehydrated, it can be added to a cup of water to rehydrate. Bergantz likes to rehydrate a store-bought dehydrated cranberry side-by-side to compare the differences. She also seizes the opportunity to talk in simple terms about the process of dehydration and rehydration.
A cranberry activity that gets all of her kids involved is building tunnels out of tape and empty cardboard rolls from paper towels and toilet paper. Once the tunnels have been assembled, she secures them to the back of a chair, angled to the ground and the kids start rolling cranberries from top to bottom.
Bergantz recommends having different branches in the network of tunnels, with a variety of receptacles to catch the berries at journey's end. A narrow cup and a shallow bowl make very different sounds when the berries drop in, and this creates an opportunity to talk about sound-wave frequencies.
Melanie Rogers, also of Stansbury Park, said she has followed Bergantz's blog since it started three years ago. "It gives me ready ideas so I don't have to think about it," she said. "I know that her ideas are going to be educational and fun."
She recently used a suggestion on Bergantz's blog to create a cranberry and popcorn garland, a lesson in math and sequencing.
Over the years. Rogers has seen her older children, now 7 and 5, begin to refer back to concepts and words they have learned from the activities while going about their everyday lives.
And that is just the kind of practical application Bergantz is hoping to achieve when she comes up with her ideas during the precious few hours of free time while her little ones are napping.