Teaching and Research - The Right Balance

Teaching and Research — The Right Balance

Sergio Lence was raised on a farm near Carlos Casares, Argentina. After high school, his interest in agriculture compelled him to study agronomy at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). He looked forward to tasting big city life during his college years, though he always intended to return to farming after getting his undergrad degree. Lence took an interest in economics and ended up doing his thesis on the futures market in Buenos Aires.

With help from his supervising professor, Lence began working at the Grain Board as a market analyst.

The Grain Board was a state entity that regulated grain trading. It owned the elevators, managed the ports and grain exports, and was the only place for farmers to sell their grain. The Division of Economic Studies prepared the statistics for market prices, as well as the stocks of grain and amounts of milling.

“While I was working at the Grain Board I also had a part time job as a teaching assistant at the university and my work supervisor and the one at the university encouraged me to continue my studies abroad,” said Lence.

So he did his homework and looked at all the U.S. universities that had ag economics departments. Iowa State offered him an assistantship so he decided on Ames.

“I came to Iowa State planning to finish my master’s and go back home right away. Within a month of arriving, though, I was offered the opportunity to go for my Ph.D. So I negotiated to do that and then go back to Argentina for one year to get married and then return.”

After returning to Argentina and working for the Grain Board for another year, Lence came back to Iowa State in August, 1989. His wife Marta joined him in the U.S. after finishing her pharmacy degree two years later.

The Right Balance

2016 and 2017 brought Lence awards for outstanding journal article and for excellence in undergrad teaching.

“I like both teaching and research,” he said. “Teaching is very rewarding when you see it really has an impact from what you do. Research is a very different kind of feeling when you come up with something that you had not thought about when you started doing the work. Quite different things — but both rewarding.”

It’s easy to see that Lence is well-liked by the students in his class. But he is very humble about winning the Ellis teaching award.

“I do my best to challenge my students in a friendly way. The hard thing in teaching is to do something that is challenging but at the same time is doable. So it’s trying to find the right balance. When they learn something new and enjoy feeling like they’ve pushed themselves and seen they can do it, they feel good about themselves.”

Students have the opportunity to rate their classes and their teachers. Lence takes student evaluations seriously.

“There are always going to be those individuals that will be harsh. But if there are many similar criticisms, you have to pay attention to that. When you see a number of comments that seem to be rather consistent, it’s time to take a look at what you’re doing.”

The International Angle

In 2009 Lence was presented the Outstanding Achievement in International Agriculture Award by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State.

“I was an early developer of the study abroad courses in CALS. I started bringing some people from Argentina to do training in economics at Iowa State, so I managed to get some contacts and to think about the possibility of taking some students there. This was in 1998 or 99.”

Because of that early involvement with international issues, Lence was named the Marlin Cole Chair of International Agriculture Economics in 2002.

“I took it as my responsibility to make a plan to have a consistent offering of study abroad courses. I surveyed the students and we found that Ireland and Australia were the top choices, but there is not much agriculture to see in Ireland in March. Then we found a connection in Spain, so that’s how we started with the idea of rotating between Australia and Spain, along with Argentina.”

These week-long trips are typically geared to around 25 students with a mix of majors who have never been abroad. The goal is to expose them to another country and take them a little bit out of their comfort zones so they realize how much there is to learn.

In addition to the yearly trip for the CALS study abroad program, Lence teaches classes for the GLOBE (Global Resource Systems) study abroad program called the Dean’s Leadership Program. The goal for the class is to teach students to work together on a project involving research of interest to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“This is a different goal from the other study abroad courses. The Dean’s program is a smaller group of (six to eight) students that does teamwork abroad for a month. We find a topic suitable for undergrad students to work on and that would be of good use to FAO. A lot of the focus is on the teamwork, trying to develop high-functioning teams that learn how to meet requirements and a deadline.”

Each year, many more students apply for study abroad than there are seats available, so Lence and his team must be selective. Preference is given to students who have never been abroad, especially if they are seniors, to give them an opportunity before they graduate. 

“We want to make sure that the students who go understand that this is not a fun spring break trip, it is a course for a grade. When they do the evaluations afterward we see that it’s as or more challenging than a regular Iowa State course.”

Lence and his groups deal with lots of challenges when abroad — lost students, lost documents, and sparse internet access in the countryside. More than once the group crashed the hotel internet when they returned in the evening and all tried to log on at once. Experience has taught Lence to take multiple copies of passports, tickets, reservations, and other documents both printed and on his electronic devices. He’s learned not to be caught off guard.

“The worst part of the trip is coming back, tired with jet lag, and having to catch up with the stuff that accumulates while you are gone. What I enjoy most is to see how the students change from beginning to end, especially the ones that have never been abroad. They come back different people. It’s the same reason I enjoy teaching the Econ101 lab because then you see them when they graduate and you see how college has transformed them, how in these four years they become more mature people. That’s what I see in the travel courses, but at an accelerated pace — it’s really a transformation.”