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Filmmaker, engineer, future rocket-builder: it’s all about creativity

Meet the Future: Xiangyu Chen

Creative, innovative, imaginative … Many of today’s students are all that and more in a vast variety of interest areas. This series features students with exceptional and unusual gifts.

Name: Xiangyu Chen
School: East Grand Rapids High School
Jam: STEAM

East Grand Rapids — Xiangyu Chen says his twin passions — filmmaking and all things science, technology, engineering and math-related — draw upon similar principles. 

“Art involves creativity, and engineering is creative as well, they just approach them differently,” said the East Grand Rapids High School senior. “Filmmaking allows me to share ideas without constraints of the physical world. Engineering allows me to approach problems creatively, like building machines that work.”

Notable achievements in both: Xiangyu recently took the grand prize at the 2020 Mosaic Mobile film competition for his short film “Possibility of Success.” Perks include $1,000 cash, and mentoring sessions with Adobe professionals with the possibility of his work being screened at the 2021 Adobe Max conference. The top three Mosaic competition winners, including Xiangyu and EGR High’s Fiona Ehrlich, were awarded 100% tuition coverage to attend an Interlochen Center for the Arts three-week film and new media program.

Xiangyu’s 2019 submission to the Mosaic competition explored his experiences overcoming stereotypes as an immigrant from China. The film won the popular vote, earning the Mosaic Mobile Rick Wilson Award and a $500 prize. The film also won best documentary in the Kent District Library Teen Film Festival.

Xiangyu also is a member of his school’s Science Olympiad, and has made STEM educational videos like this one for the international Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

With both film and STEM activities, Xiangyu said what fuels his passion is “learning how people approach the same problem or issue differently. Everyone approaches it from their own perspective.”

Xiangyu Chen works on a STEM project — an airplane powered by rubber bands — in the school’s gymnasium (courtesy)

Educators he credits with sparking his interests: Xiangyu and his family moved from China to the U.S. when he was 10, first living in Portland, Oregon. In seventh grade, he said, he took an introduction to filmmaking class from a teacher he remembers only as Mr. G, at West Sylvan Middle School. He liked the class so much he took it again in eighth grade.

The Chens settled in East Grand Rapids just before Xiangyu’s freshman year, where he was enrolled in Pamela Steers’ film studies class. “She really helped me see how different elements create different meanings in film,” he said. In 10th grade, Steers’ video production class “helped me grow as a filmmaker,” and he realized documentary was his preferred mode of storytelling.

Xiangyu cited his science and math teachers at EGR as those who furthered his interest in STEM, and said Science Olympiad club adviser Dr. Elizabeth Neubig “has been super supportive and she introduces different applications of STEM in the club. I don’t think I would have that same love and passion for STEM without her.”

His filmmaking philosophy: Documentary “has a more direct impact and conveys a message and an intention that I just cannot with fiction,” Xiangyu said. “The best stories are the true stories.”

His award-winning films are both in documentary style; 2019’s is about his being new to America and overcoming stereotypes, and this year’s Mosaic winner considers the hope in possibilities for his own future.

“Film has been my voice to add my opinion and perspectives, compared to writing an essay or just telling people. Film is a great medium to show rather than to tell. English is my second language, so sometimes I feel like it does become challenging for me to communicate my ideas clearly in just words.

His future self in 10-20 years: Professionally, Xiangyu is interested in aerospace engineering. “I want to be the guy who builds the rockets that get people into space.” But he does see filmmaking in his future as well. “I can use it to explain to others the projects I work on as an engineer.

“Engineering is all about having the idea and figuring out how to make it into a reality; film is letting my imagination go. They both develop me as a person.”

Outside of this, what are your other hobbies/interests/little-known talents? Xiangyu is on the school’s tennis team. “I really like the sport, and running around in the sun helps me to relax.” 

Thoughts about being a high school senior in a global pandemic: “It’s obviously an unprecedented time. I would really encourage people to use the time positively, like spending time with family and learning new things. Doing something positive really helps to look toward the hopeful future.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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