One of Dr. Sean O'Connell's students has said of him, "Sean truly loves teaching. Anyone who has taken a class with him will testify to that." Professor O'Connell emphasizes that since joining the faculty of Western Carolina University eight years ago he has learned that teaching is "far more complex - and rewarding" than he had ever imagined, but his teaching philosophy continues to be shaped by a lesson he absorbed as a college freshman. Asked to develop a supplemental instructional program for a course in basic astronomy, he discovered that the way to improve the learning of his fellow students was to overcome their fear of science.
As a microbiologist two decades later, he updates his lecture notes daily as he keeps up with journals in the field, but he relies less on the lecture format than on sharing with his students the excitement of "real world science." A case in point is his class on the Principles of General Microbiology, which begins with a visit to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where each student harvests an unknown microorganism from the soil or water. Enthusiasm mounts all semester as everyone cultures their bacteria and runs a sequence of biological tests. The suspense is heightened by the fact that, since microbial diversity is so astonishingly vast, most students actually discover a new species. Western is the only school studying the biodiversity of bacteria in the park, and each new species discovered is recorded in the ongoing All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory of the Smokies.
Dr. O'Connell inspires his students to pursue independent research and gives generous individual instruction in the advanced skills required. In the Biotechnology Center where the students do their work, much of the equipment was secured with grants awarded to Professor O'Connell and his fellow faculty. The basis of theses on both the senior and master's levels, this student research often results in articles coauthored with Professor O'Connell that are published in peer-reviewed journals or presented at professional conferences. Last summer he and a graduate student gave a paper at the International Symposium on Microbial Ecology in Cairns, Australia. Accepted into doctoral programs throughout the country and in Canada, his students have gone on to pursue their research at NASA and elsewhere. In recognition of his success in bringing his research into the classroom, Dr. O'Connell received the university's Teaching and Research Award in 2003; and in 2005 he was presented with the Teaching Award of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The challenge of heightening the awareness of the crucial environmental role played by organisms invisible to the naked eye has encouraged his creative approach to teaching. A course in microbial ecology that he taught at the Highlands Biological Station was characterized by the director as "a tour de force - in wetland and woodland... Dr. O'Connell excited and inspired his students, and I am convinced they no longer see the world in the same way." The syllabus of a summer course in the natural history of Yellowstone National Park charted the trip the class would take along the trail of Lewis and Clark and advised in bold type: Backcountry experience is required... Large dangerous mammals and hazardous terrain will be encountered! Dr. O'Connell is currently the H.F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University.