October 15, 2014

National Geographic Winner Aims to Become Next Bill Nye ’77

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Biologist and filmmaker Charlie Engelman — this year’s recipient of National Geographic Expedition Granted prize — is teaming up with Mark Holton Ph.D. ’99 to perfect his tree climbing abilities as part of an educational video project.

Engelman, a senior at the University of Michigan, won the Expedition Granted contest — which grants $50,000 annually to an explorer — for his “Get Pumped About Nature” video series, which aims to educate children about nature.

Engelman’s project operates on the premise that television-based teaching figures — such as Bill Nye ’77 — are out of date, according to Holton, director of outdoor programs and risk management for Cornell Outdoor Education. Holton added that the previous generation learned about the importance of going green from these figures, but children today need a more modern voice.

“We can’t rely on Bill Nye anymore — we need a new form of communication. We need to speak the language,” Holton said. “[Engelman] is kind of a zany character for science but with an updated modern feeling about what a good science video is.”

Holton, who is also a staff member at the  University’s Tree Climbing Institute, said Engelman first contacted him about after he had seen the institute’s instructional videos. Holton said he was not surprised by the request.

“Although being able to go outside was the initial goal of the club, after word got out, anyone from ornithologists to primatologists have contacted us asking our team to train them,” he said.

Teaching tree climbing techniques is a tricky business, and it is necessary that researchers and explorers are well-informed about how to grip bark to ensure security while climbing a 200-foot tree, according to Holton.

Holton said he explained to Engelman that he envisioned making a web-based video series that would both inform and excite today’s youth about nature by exploring America’s forests.

“I instantly agreed to help,” Holton said. “It is a critical issue for this generation.”

The pace of environmental degradation and climate change are just a few of the issues that the two men are both concerned about, according to Holton.

Holton added the issue of protecting the Earth’s environment and informing citizens about the importance of the environment is especially pressing for him.

“I [used to] work in oceanography and was on the 1990 Greenland Iceland Project 2 which cored the Greenland icecap. A whole lot of scientists saw it as a record of global climate,” Holton said. “So, when I see awareness pieces coming around, I think, ‘My God, has it really taken it this long for people to realize we need to do something?’ — need to educate sooner.”

Engelman and his sister — who will be accompanying her brother on his exploration — will arrive at Cornell in the spring semester for a four-day tree climbing training session, and they will go to California to climb giant sequoias with members of the Tree Climbing Institute following the session, according to Holton.

Holton added he has great hope for Engleman and his interactive nature videos.

“I feel like [Engleman] is the next great science educator, and I’m really happy to help him along with his journey,” he said.