Adjunct Faculty Interview Series

Adjunct Faculty Interview: Debbie Finocchio, Director of General Chemistry

picture of Debbie Finocchio

Tell us the Basics: What’s your story? Describe a unique aspect of your everyday perspective that impacts your teaching. 

I graduated from USD in 1988 with a BA in Chemistry and returned here to work in 1992. So, I’ve been with USD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry for a good portion of my life(!) and have firsthand knowledge of the benefits of being a student at USD. As Director of General Chemistry, I make sure that those lecture and lab courses are operating smoothly from both the faculty and the student angles. The director job helps me to anticipate problems before they arise, or to at least minimize them, and to consider and implement what will be the best experience for the student; being an alum gives me perspective to say, “Take advantage of the low student: teacher ratio and get to know your professors!”, “Notice and enjoy the natural and architectural beauty of this school!”, “Challenge yourselves in your core courses– your liberal arts education will impact your lives in ways you would not have imagined!”

How do you get to know your students? Any suggestions?

I work hard to learn every student’s name as quickly as possible – it goes a long way to opening a door in establishing the relationship, and sets a good tone in the classroom. (I am naturally very bad at learning names, so this takes some effort. I try to have things to pass back to students early on, so that I can practice matching names with faces and voices.) I also encourage students to come to office hours early in the semester, even if they don’t have a question, just to introduce themselves and to break down the various barriers students have going to office hours. In lab and in office hours is where I really get to know students, because you’re working more one-on-one.

Think about your most memorable teaching moment.  What was the “make it or break it” moment for you?

I can’t pick just one – I’ve been doing this too long!  In general, the most memorable teaching moments are when the teacher is either minimally guiding or is not saying anything, so that the student can experience it on his/her own, even if the student is making a mistake. You can learn a lot from a mistake. It can take great restraint on the part of the teacher to allow the student to make that mistake and then get back on the right path, but it is incredibly educational and empowering for the student to experience this process.  My most memorable teaching and learning moments have typically involved these types of scenarios. 

Why is this your chosen field?
I chose chemistry because I enjoy working with my hands and I liked the challenge of chemistry.  I also love to cook and bake, and there is a lot of overlap between chemistry and cooking.  I chose to teach because I like to help others discover/develop their skills, their passions, and their potential. 

How do you create a collaborative learning environment in the classroom?

I like to break up lecture time with active learning. (Have you seen Dr. Eric Mazur’s study of brain wave activity of students during a lecture class? Yikes.) Usually, it will involve some type of collaborative work. Sometimes students will work in small groups to solve problems or critically evaluate a scenario, and sometimes it will be more along the lines of  “Think, Pair, Share”. 

In General Chemistry laboratory, I have used Team-Based Learning (TBL) individual and team quizzes as a launching point for several experiments. It is incredible to hear the discussions the students have during the team quiz, debating the “why” behind an answer.

What is the most “Changemaker” transformation happening in education today?

One important shift over the last several years has been towards “process” as opposed to just “content”. We want our graduates to be able to reason through complicated information/situations, so that they can make informed, ethical decisions.  We want them to be able to communicate effectively, and to navigate/evaluate the enormous amount of information that is out there. Helping our students to develop these skills at every step throughout their education within their respective disciplines (and throughout the core curriculum) is an exciting challenge to take on.

What do you want fellow adjuncts to know?

That you are an integral part of this University!