Engaging Students Through Community Connections

Teacher Doubles as College Professor, Providing Link Beyond Graduation

Steve Rierson holds Holyfield, a rescued Eastern Box turtle

During Steve Rierson’s Lee High School physics class, students become pretend members of the Wyoming City Council, researching alternative energy sources for possible city use.

In biology, they scramble for food, simulating animals in the wild trying to survive the long winter months. And in forensics, they become both criminals creating crime scenes and sleuths investigating them.

To make science relate to the outside world, Rierson puts his students in the middle of the action, connecting them with the community and environment.

“I’m trying to get them to see things as more than just an assignment,” Rierson said. “My classes are generally very lab-based. Students get used to trying to solve problems, most of them real-world.”

“Real-world” can apply to anything from their own neighborhoods to deep in the wilderness. Physics students studying alternative fuels presented pros and cons of solar, nuclear and other energy sources to their peers who represented the City Council. Then each student became a council chairperson, individually recommending which source would best serve the city.

“Anytime you can relate to the community and tie things to issues students will face as they get older, they will feel like they’re part of the solution,” Rierson said. “When the community does start bringing up an issue, they are more likely to get involved.”

In biology, students battled for M&M’s, competing in one-minute increments to snatch candy from a bowl, representing food in a habitat. It was survival of the fittest, with many students realizing they faced starvation.

“I didn’t do so well,” said sophomore Eduardo Montiel, who only gathered four of 10 needed green M&Ms. Classmate Steffani Buitron only got six.

“Oh, we have mass extinction,” Rierson said.

But sophomore Ana Valle got the 10 pieces she needed, promising a comfortable winter.

Carmen Vanegas leans in to scoop up M&Ms
Carmen Vanegas leans in to scoop up M&Ms

A Conduit to College

The 19-year high school teacher takes his job beyond the walls of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. By day, Rierson is in the Lee biology, physics, forensics, and anatomy classes. His evenings are spent as an adjunct professor at Kendall College of Art and Design teaching natural science, and at Grand Rapids Community College teaching human anatomy and physiology.

He’s taught some of the same students in high school and college, and said he’s thrilled to see them succeed. “It just reaffirms that what I’m doing here with them is moving them in the right direction.”

There’s overlap in how Rierson teaches his high school and college courses. He teaches anatomy especially as a precursor for college.

Jaime Ramirez, a 2010 Lee High graduate, was in both Rierson’s high school and GRCC anatomy courses.

“I specifically wanted to take (GRCC Anatomy and Physiology) with him because I honestly enjoyed it in high school,” Jamie said. “Some of the students say he’s a hard teacher, but he teaches so that the students learn and can apply what they learned.

“I feel he makes his classes harder so when we do get to higher courses they’ll be that much easier,” he added. “I look forward to taking more classes with him if possible.”

Hanna Fishman said Rierson’s classes require class members to work independently, go into depth and critique each other. “He really pushes us to be our best,” she said.

“It makes me start thinking more on a critical basis, like you have to take many steps to achieve a goal,” Francisco Zainos added.

Hooking Students on Science

Rierson’s classroom is home to turtles, rats, lizards and snakes, many found and given to him by students. A rescued Eastern Box turtle named Holyfield lost a foot and broke his shell when injured by a car. Now, under Rierson’s care for three years, the sociable turtle often walks around the classroom.

“He gets full run of the room. It’s pretty much his room, we are just using it,” Rierson quipped.

The vibe in the classroom where animals roam and students imagine possibilities in science is welcoming and inclusive. That’s why Rierson’s students are hooked.

“Students are students,” he said. “I don’t think there are any who don’t want to come in and experience and learn. They come in motivated and curious, it’s just trying to connect to their motivation and curiosity so they stay engaged.”

Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Dave Britten said Rierson’s passion for science shows through everything he does with his students.

“His enthusiasm and excitement for scientific discovery draws them in and allows him to elevate the challenges and raise the bar, engaging kids in a tough content area and inspiring some to pursue science-related careers,” Britten said.

Rierson’s status as an adjunct college professor adds credibility to his classroom role, and an unusual linkage that allows him to structure his courses as a bridge to higher education, Britten added. “While many of his students struggle with the inherent challenges this creates, they see Steve as the type of teacher who just won’t give up on them and will be there to help them, even after school hours and often late into the evening.”

Eduardo Montiel and Steffani Buitron compete for “food” for the winter
Eduardo Montiel and Steffani Buitron compete for “food” for the winter

All His ‘Kids’

Rierson, who lives in Wyoming, said he loves the Godfrey-Lee community and sees incredible potential in his students. He’s also served as a cross-country and track coach in a district where running is viewed as a tradition by many.

“The students in my class are all my kids,” he said. “Sometimes the city schools get a bum rap because people hear the negative and respond to negative things. They forget that these kids are amazing and have so much potential, and come here with dreams and expectations.

“For me, that is why I love coming in every morning.”

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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