How Ann Arbor helped launch a next generation explorer

U-M senior Charlie Engelman has spent the past year creating a slew of educational science videos and now he's getting ready to step up his cinematic endeavors with the financial support of none other than National Geographic.

The society awarded Engelman $50,000 last month as the winner of Expedition Granted, a nationwide contest designed "to find the next generation of explorers." Engelman will use the money to create a series of family-friendly educational videos featuring extreme tree climbing and paramotor fly-overs at notable forests across the nation, as outlined in his pitch video. He says he applied to the program on a whim, in addition to seeking a number of other smaller grants.

"I almost forgot about it for a while because I didn’t think I had much of a chance, and then I got the call saying I was in their top 10," Engelman says.

Engelman made his first educational video in 2013 during an internship in Delaware, but has since self-produced a plethora of others in Ann Arbor – some featuring local stalwarts like the Diag’s fox squirrels and the Charles Baird Carillon. You can watch his videos on his YouTube channel, World By Charlie, where he covers a variety of topics, all with an educational bent and goofball charm. Two of the videos were even purchased by San Francisco educational website DIY.org. 

When Engelman moved to Ann Arbor from the Chicago area, he says he was excited to find opportunities to pursue a variety of creative and artistic endeavors, including creating a puppet for FestiFools and performing with U-M acting troupes. He says he was impressed by the "creative support" he received here from professors, fellow students and the community in general. The encouragement he received on those early projects helped prompt his recent, more intense focus on making videos.

"It's been received so positively by everyone," Engelman says. "I think it's just very uniquely Ann Arbor to receive creative endeavors really positively, with enthusiasm."

Although Engelman is still relatively new to making videos, his work is far from amateurish. The videos are charmingly produced, with a fast-paced blend of facts and wisecracks to inform and entertain kids and adults alike. Engelman, who hosts each video with an engaging and energetic personality, says he'd love to eventually make a career in educational television.

"I really enjoy science, but a career in research really doesn’t appeal to me," he says. "Because I’m a very creative person, I think it’s a great way where I can apply my creative interests to my science interests and produce something that people could learn from."

Engelman says Ann Arbor has made an ideal location for him to go about his filmmaking with a small cast and crew of friends, family and mentors.

"One of the most unique things about Ann Arbor is there’s so many enthusiastic people out here who are into new, creative ideas, which has made it so easy to get into video producing here," he says. "Everyone from professors to students are really eager to help out local people in the community as well. It’s a great place. I love it."

However, he won't be pursuing those interests in Ann Arbor for the long-term future. When Engelman graduates this spring, he'll be setting out across the country to film his tree-climbing exploits. But after he finishes shooting he'll be settling back in with his parents in Illinois for one reason only.

"If someone were to pay my rent, I would stay [in Ann Arbor,]" Engelman says. "That's why I'm going back."

And he's not the only one. Engelman says he knows fellow students who are planning to leave town simply because they're not finding the job opportunities they need. But he says he also knows other young would-be Ann Arborites who'd have no reason not to stick around if only the city could find a way to "drive the rent down." 

"If I were to stay here I would want to stay as close to downtown Ann Arbor and U-M as I could, which is where rent is the highest," he says. "So it's not economically possible, not financially possible, for me to stick around. It's not in the cards."

Although the financial reality is still at least a few years down the line for the burgeoning young filmmaker, he says he'd love to return to Ann Arbor eventually–if only to continue ticking down his list of potential subjects for new videos.

"I come up with ideas inspired by so many things around me in Ann Arbor," Engelman says. "I wish I had more time to do them all."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and lead writer for Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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