Plastina wins ISU remote instruction award

Dr. Alejandro Plastina Alejandro Plastina’s title is associate professor and extension economist in the Department of Economics, but his passion is problem solving.

The lion’s share of Plastina’s job responsibility is extension. He enjoys working collaboratively with farmers, producers, agronomists, rural appraisers, and others on a personal level while creating economic tools to help them address real-life problems in the ag sector.

Multiple awards from Iowa State University (ISU Extension and Outreach Creativity in Service to All Iowans Award in 2020, ISU ANR Programming Innovation Award in 2018, and ISU Extension and Outreach Impacting Iowa Award in 2014) recognize his achievements in that area.

In addition, in 2019, the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association awarded him the Distinguished Extension Program Award for excellence in extension economics education programs.

“The highlights of my research-based extension program in 2019 included multiple decision tools in the form of spreadsheets and information files published on the Ag Decision Maker website, as well as interactive budgets for cover crops and maps.”

Exceptional, innovative

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Plastina has won his latest award:  the ISU Office of the President Excellence in Remote Instruction. The award is part of Iowa State’s COVID-19 Exceptional Effort Awards Program to recognize the exceptional and innovative ways faculty overcame the challenges of the pandemic.

Here, too, he used his problem-solving skills to give students information to help them succeed by converting ECON 330: Advanced Farm Business Management to an entirely online course.  

“ECON 330 has a major focus on applied financial management decisions,” said Plastina. “There is great synergy between the decision tools I develop for my extension program and the materials I use to teach. In-class teamwork to solve investment decision problems and individual homework involving the use of specialized farm financial software are pivotal to the hands-on approach of the class.”

He faced two major challenges to teaching ECON 330 online:  finding ways to engage students in meaningful teamwork during synchronous sessions, and using just one screen to show students how new software works while implementing the analyses.

To meet the first challenge, Plastina incorporated Piazza to expand the communication channels with and between students. He designed a system that combines synchronous group discussions (in breakout sessions) and collaborative editing of documents in Canvas-Collaborations.

“All students in the same breakout session were able to discuss in real time how to complete the assignment, and simultaneously edit the one document assigned to the team. This system eliminated the need for students to submit the completed assignment to me, since I could access it via Canvas-Collaborations.” 

The Department of Economics IT staff helped Plastina with the second challenge by making the financial analysis software available to all students either via remote desktop in the Heady computer lab or by installing the software on their own PCs.

Plastina solved the one-screen problem by creating introductory mini-lectures in different software modules and using existing short videos to help students familiarize themselves with the software before class, thus maximizing the synchronous session time devoted to completing the course materials.

Several courses from the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the Brenton Center helped Plastina set up the course structure, as well as spark his own interest in finding collaborative platforms integrated into Canvas.

In addition to fostering student success, Plastina’s work includes researching conservation practices, pest management, and crops-livestock integration.

“I do enjoy the breadth of work required by my position description because of the critical role those areas play in shaping the future of agriculture in Iowa. Having great opportunities to address these issues is simply the cherry on top of the cake,” he added.