Curiosity Creates STEM Connections: Adventures in Learning with Swift Creek Media CEO Brad Herring

Updated: Nov 15

S1 E17: Host -- Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor/Guest -- Brad Herring

How can we harness curiosity to engage learners in STEM and in the world around them? Swift Creek Media CEO Brad Herring shares thoughts on storytelling, building STEM connections, and approaching the world from a new perspective. Plus, learn about the NISENetwork and its many STEM resources.


While Brad’s career began by serving overseas in Panama with the United States Peace Corps, his passion for filmmaking began with the birth of his daughter. What started as a hobby, quickly grew into his job and eventually led him to start his own production company, Swift Creek Media. He has over 17 years of experience in project management, creating and producing over 150 videos for one of the largest science museum networks in the United States. Brad previously worked at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC and led NISE Network online workshops while serving as NISENet's Earth & Space project-based professional learning community leader and as the Southeast regional hub leader.


I first met Brad when we were both deeply ensconced in the museum world. Through our collaboration together, I learned how to tap into STEM resources and community professionals to enhance the wow factor of the STEAM Night programs I developed for the children's museum where I was working at the time. I also gained access to the creative collaborative energy of a nationwide network of informal educators seeking to get the public excited about science and hands-on learning.


What drove STEM programs for you in the museum world? [00:40]
How do we engage more than just young children? How do we engage adults or teenagers at museums? --Brad Herring [2:31]

Brad started at the Museum of Life and Science 17 years ago as a youth educator. From there, he ran the youth program and eventually took on the adult programming. "I kind of found a lot of the joys in bringing this kind of sense of wonder and excitement to children and to adults." The Nanotechnology project started in 2005 with the NISENetwork provided opportunities to engage with older audiences than they typically did.


Wonder and engagement are some of the critical elements I've used in my own hands-on programming for STEM or STEAM, whether formally in the classroom or informally through museum programs, summer camps, outreach programs, or adult education. Drawing on my own experiences, I asked Brad what elements he would want to consider when building an effective STEM program.


I think curiosity is another word that we were taught at the museum, something that we strive to kind of get kids to think about, to be curious about their world, to ask questions about why things are the way they are. Don't just accept them for what they are. So whenever we created a program, we wanted to create this wow moment, this sense of wonder, or asking kids to think about things in a curious way. And it just made it maybe more fun and more engaging and a better learning environment for them. --Brad Herring [03:11]

Brad suggested that program developers think back to their own curiosity as a child in trying to understand the world around them when creating programs. "What made you wonder or what made you kind of think about things differently?" he asks. "Be curious and ask the questions that you did. I think a lot of times kids ask a ton of questions and adults don't ask any questions. And I don't know why we lose that sense of curiosity or some of us tend to lose that sense of curiosity, but for me that's probably one of the bigger ones."


Brad loves the word curiosity so much that when they started homeschooling his daughter 15 years ago, they named their school Curiosity Labs. "And I think that's kind of parlayed into what I am about now and being curious about our world," he says. "I want to explore it. I want to see things firsthand. I want to turn over that leaf and that rock and go out with my flashlight at night and look and see what's out there and just still be curious because I think that's what makes us human and it makes us enjoy the world a little bit better."


What are the big burning questions Brad is asking today? [5:13]

And so I think one of our biggest problems is that engagement.

Brad thinks one of the biggest challenges we face today is building engagement when we are competing for attention with the information bombarding us on our screens. "One of the struggles that I'm having right now is how to keep engagement going, to keep prolonged engagement going when a 15 second clip on Instagram is really the length of our imagination or our kids’ ability to kind of stay focused," he says. He notes that when he began making films, the rule of thumb was to keep it under five minutes and that has gradually been whittled down to 15-30 seconds. "And that's frustrating," he notes. "How do you get a message across in 15 to 30 seconds? And if you don't, you've already lost somebody."


He notes that the time to hook someone and grab their interest keeps shrinking. "You see it in the museum world, like, even with parents who are on their cell phones while their kids are learning," he notes. "How do you engage somebody and keep them interested?" It's all about the hook, finding a way to break through the noise. "And once I've captured your imagination, I can start to pull you in a little bit more and show you, help you learn, or show you what I want to show you," he says.

My own observations show that finding that hook to build engagement is a challenge, not just for museum educators, but for teachers in the classroom as well. You really do have to hook the students or your audience with the wow that draws them in and engages them. That time for building that wow moment, for building that engagement has condensed more and more. And so we don't have five minutes to do it. We really have to have that very cool demonstration activity that's going to get their attention. And once we have it, then we can build those connections and help them to see the connections to the books, the connections to the real world. But it's sort of how do we get their attention in the first place?


What is NISE Network and how can it help build engaged learning? [10:06]

Let's learn a little bit more about the National Informal STEM Education Network. I asked Brad to share a little bit more about that for those who may not know what that is.


The NISENetwork started around 17 years ago, a federally funded project from the National Science Foundation. The NISENet is essentially a group of scientists and informal educators and others in the museum and informal world who are dedicated to STEM and STEM learning and lifelong learning. "And so we have a variety of projects that are federally funded," he notes. "Some are private funded, and each of those projects have different outcomes and different deliverables. But for the most part, we develop hands on programming and professional development, and then we share those widely throughout the museum world, informal institutions like libraries, science museums, children's museums."


[10:58] We have a variety of partners all across the US that receive our materials, whether it's a physical material or an online material, something that you can just download a lesson plan and then you might have to go out and buy some materials. But we create all these hands on programming around STEAM topics. So we've done biology, chemistry, nanotechnology, Earth and Space, and we've dived into topics around like Frankenstein, a couple of other various sustainability, a few others in there. But we have an incredible wealth of resources on our website, https://www.nisenet.org, which everything on there is under a Creative Commons license. So we encourage teachers and educators all across the US to go and download these programs, look at them. We have educational materials for the educator. We have materials for the participant. We have training materials, training videos, PDFs, and resources for you to learn more about the topic.

Taking Curiosity On The Road [14:17]

In between Brad's work at the Museum of Life and Science and his new venture with Swift Creek Media, he and his wife and daughter took off on the summer trip of a lifetime. I followed much of their journey via Instagram and asked him to share some of his adventures with us.


Brad started by sharing about the trip he and his brother took with his mother when he was 11. "It was a really impactful time for me," he remembers. "I'd never been out west. I'd never seen Yellowstone or South Dakota or Montana or any of these western states." He described the impact of seeing a world beyond Tennessee had on him. "I had always kind of had this love for nature and love for being outside, but that really just solidified it."


That love for nature played out in planning this trip with his own wife and daughter. "So we actually took two months off between July and August and we just got in the car and we drove and we planned very little. The whole idea was to just plan one week long campsite in each of the seven states that we were going to and just be there. And every day we would wake up and find something new to do."


"We heard coyotes every night and there were just critters all around us and we really were the only people," he remembers. "And after spending 17 years at this job and really kind of behind the desk a lot, I did travel, but I didn't get out a lot. It just really felt good to get out. And I've done a lot of these trips out west, but it felt even better to be on the end of having my daughter experiencing them and watch her as she saw the Grand Canyon for the first time or witnessed Yellowstone or some of these experiences or just kind of camping with no amenities."


I would say probably the biggest memory I'll have is driving home from South Dakota. We were all kind of sad and anxious to get home, but also not wanting to get home. And my daughter is 15 years old, and I turned to her and said, Would you do it again? And she said, I don't even want to go home. I could live on the road. I love this so much. And so that meant the world to me, because at 15 years old, most daughters or sons or kids at that age would just be ready to get back to their friends. That really meant to me that we did it right. We had fun. We're good together. The three of us have a lot of fun. And I didn't ruin it for her. --Brad Herring [18:15]

Filmmaking As Storytelling [21:25]

Brad Herring recently launched Swift Creek Media, a film production company. The film production company grew out of the videos he has been creating for his family, the museum, and the NISE Network.


"As I started progressing and making more and more films for the network and the museum, I really felt that's where my passion really was," he says. "That's what got me out of bed in the morning. I got to work on a new film project or it allowed me to express creativity in a way that I had never done before in my life, never thought of myself as a real creative person in that way. And I found real enjoyment in that. So I think, as we all kind of did in the pandemic, we started second guessing, like, why are we doing what we do and what gets me out of bed every morning and why do I want to show up at work? And so I decided to make the jump and I started my own film production company."


Brad continues to work with the NISE Network and the museum on training videos and special projects. But he also gets to explore other methods of storytelling through film. "I think having this new free time as a freelance artist allows me this opportunity to kind of explore new avenues," he says. "And one of the genres that I'm really attracted to is documentary. And so I'm toying with ideas around creating my own documentaries. Now, I love to cook. I'm kind of playing around with cooking and filming and trying to marry those two passions as just kind of excitement, and who knows where that'll take me. I've started working on a little documentary now, but that's kind of for down the road and really cranks up next year."


So I'm making films...And staying connected to the museum world is great because that STEAM and that passion of creating content that helps inspire the next generation is something that I've always been passionate about. -- Brad Herring [24:11]

How do we tell the stories? [25:20]


"Storytelling is something like I think, that's at its core, that's what a filmmaker is," Brad says. "I'm a storyteller. And I think that's important. And going back to what we started with at the very beginning, how do you tell that story? I'm still learning about the arc of storytelling and what makes a good story and how to start a story and how to end the story and how to bring the emotions out of characters. And that's something that I'll continue learning."


[27:03] Dr. Diane: Well, I think that gets back to what we talked about in the beginning, about engagement and that wow moment, or that hook, is if you can look at it from the layperson's point of view and get the science explained in a way that somebody can understand it, then it becomes something they can grab onto and apply to their lives. I think that's powerful storytelling, right?



What are some strategies for connecting storytelling and engaged STEM/STEAM learning? [27:25]

As we discussed the connection between picture books, reading, and engaged STEM/STEAM learning, Brad acknowledged that childhood Dyslexia impacted his ability to comprehend. "That's why I kind of shied away from reading," he says. "And whenever I would have to read a book, I would have to take notes as I read, like characters and things. And so I think that's been a struggle for me. And something even when I started reading, I would revert back to taking notes on who people are because I can't recall as the chapters go on, what I've read prior."

He noted that NISE Network took picture books and turned them into hands-on STEM/STEAM programs. A good example of this is the program Horton Senses Something Small, based on Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Hoo. "What we did is we took a familiar book where Horton Hears a Who, he hears something, but he can't see it," Brad notes. "And so we related that to the nano world, right? So the nano world is something that you know exists, but you just can't see it. And so we developed a program around a children's book that was very familiar, that had a very familiar concept, but we kind of changed it a little bit."


Another NISE Network program took Alice in Wonderland and reworked it as Alice in NanoLand to connect it to nano science. Some additional NISENet connections that link STEM/STEAM experiences to picture books include: Breakfast Moon, Moonbear’s Shadow, Hide and Seek Moon, and Frankenstein.


[30:16] Dr. Diane: And that's an interesting point of view, though, to remember that there are students who don't engage with books the way that a passionate reader might. And so how can you create that experience in a way that it's open to them as well? And so that's where if you can connect a book to the hands on activities or to being able to move and use those gross motor skills, that might be another entree for people.


What Brings You Hope? [33:17]

[33:25] Brad: Something that brings me hope? Wow. That's a good question. I don't know. I think this summer road trip, I think brought a little hope to me. One of the things I've tried to do over the last couple of years is try to get off social media, and I'm on Instagram but only follow a select group of chefs.


But I wanted to get off of Instagram or off of social media, away from the news, because I felt like I was just getting bogged down and the world is a terrible place. And then I went on the summer trip, and I realized that people aren't that bad and people are really good and people care.


And I got to see people and meet people and be with people that I've never met before. And they all opened up their lands. As I said, we camped on private lands. We got to meet some of these people and whether they had different views than me, we were all just kind of coming around kind of this common, like, we're outside, we're in nature, and we're experiencing this world together.


What gives me hope is if we all just kind of come together a little bit more and understand and be willing to listen to each other, and maybe that will change a little bit. That's cliche to say. We always hope this and we want this to happen. But it really gave me hope that there are good people out there and we just need to get outside of our own walls and travel more and experience more and live more and experience new cultures. New foods. Try new things. Be curious about our world and just restore that sense of wonder that we were all born with.



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