Contact Information:
Aaron Sell
School of Criminology
Griffith University, Mount Gravatt
176 Messines Ridge Road
Mount Gravatt, QLD, 4121
Australia
sell@psych.ucsb.edu

Reverse engineering the eyebrow is a good exercise in identifying adaptive design



Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy borrows heavily from William James who said, “It takes a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange.”  My goal is to both impart the core knowledge of the topic under study but also to train the students to use the scientific method and deductive reasoning on tasks that scientists have not yet addressed.  For example, when I teach students how to recognize functional design in an organism, I use the eyebrow as an example.  First, I ask them to appreciate how odd it is that we have caterpillar-sized tufts of hair coming out of our foreheads but surrounded by smooth skin.  The class then identifies possible functions for the eyebrows, one of which is always keeping sweat and rain out of the eyes.  Then I have them make a list of design features that could help solve this problem.  As a class, they usually notice: i) that the individual hairs are angled horizontally, funneling water to the side instead of downward into the eye, ii) the eyebrows are positioned exactly above the eye and fades in the middle and the sides such that liquid can drain down the face, iii) eyebrow hair is coarse rather than fine like the small hairs on the cheek, keeping liquid trapped, and iv) that the eyebrow is arched slightly like the roof of a house so that liquid spreads to the sides rather than pools in the middle.  By applying evolutionary principles of functional design to a simple part of the body the students learn that scientific theories and ways of thinking do not only apply to the massive datasets that scientists have collected, but are meant to be used to explore all aspects of behavior, however trivial.  I make frequent use of scientific and colloquial examples when I teach to maintain interest and illustrate potentially confusing concepts.

In addition to reading articles within psychology proper, I ask students to read material from different disciplines that pertain to the particular topic at hand, e.g., material from developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and cultural anthropology.  My teaching philosophy in many ways reflects my approach to research.  I feel that to understand a particular topic, it is important to attack it from many angles, e.g., social, cognitive, developmental, neurobiological, evolutionary and clinical.

Courses I have developed and taught

“Human Relationships and Their Origin." Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara. 2002.

“Developmental Perspectives." Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara.  2001 and 2004.

“Genetics, Natural Selection, and Human Evolution.” Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara.  2006.

"Psychological theories of crime." School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Mount Gravatt. 2011 and 2012.

"Offender Profiling." School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Mount Gravatt. 2011 and 2012.

"Evolutionary perspectives on crime." School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Mount Gravatt. Scheduled for 2013.

Courses I have taught as a Teaching Assistant

Abnormal Psychology. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Biopsychology. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Cognitive Development. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Developmental Psychology. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Evolutionary Psychology. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

General Psychology. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Human Motivation. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Introduction to Communications. Department of Communications, UCSB.

Introduction to Statistics. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Introductory Statistics. Department of Communications, UCSB.

Methods and Design. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Personality Psychology. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

Psychological Measurement. Department of Psychology, UCSB.

My evaluations for all courses far exceeded the campus average and the verbal and written feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive, though as a few of the students noted I tend to get excited about the topics I teach and sometimes talk too fast as a result.  In addition to the courses I developed and taught, I had ample opportunity to teach as a graduate student with responsibilities that included guiding lab work, leading discussions, assisting guest speakers, delivering lectures, meeting with students, and mentoring undergraduates.  During this time, I won the student-nominated Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for a class on statistics in the social sciences.