Taylor Gibson began serving as the Dean of Data Science and Interdisciplinary Initiatives this academic year. In this role, he helps develop new data science and interdisciplinary coursework and collaborates with faculty from all departments to deliver these new opportunities to students across all of NCSSM's campuses and programs. Previously, Mr. Gibson was a member of the mathematics faculty from 2013 to 2022, serving as the Dean of Mathematics from 2018 to 2022. In the Mathematics Department, he helped create new courses in cryptography and data science and piloted a new standards-based grading approach to assessment. Mr. Gibson holds a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a master's degree in mathematics education from the University of Georgia.
Would you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to teaching?
Through elementary, middle, and high school I always loved math and science courses, and I loved seeing how I could use computers to help explore these areas. When it came time for college, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew it would be in a STEM field, so I started at Georgia Tech in a computer science program, but ultimately graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering. I learned towards the end of my undergraduate degree that my passion was in education and public service, so I immediately began a master’s program in mathematics education, hoping to learn more about how to formally teach the subjects that I've learned to love throughout my own education. After completing my master’s degree, I taught for three years in Georgia public schools, then three years of teaching in Texas, and now I’m starting my tenth year at NCSSM.
You helped to create NCSSM’s course in cryptography, a course you’ve taught in both the Durham residential and online programs. Would you tell us a bit about that course?
Cryptography is the study of making messages or information unreadable without an additional piece of information, usually called a key or password, that allows you to transform the message back into a readable form. There are many examples of cryptography used throughout history—from Julius Caesar, to Mary, Queen of Scots, to the World Wars—to keep private information away from prying eyes. This course investigates various ideas in mathematics that have allowed cryptography to become more complex over time. Students also use computer programming to break into outdated methods used long ago and to study more modern techniques for encrypting messages that are still unbreakable to this day. If you love puzzles, languages, and mathematics and are looking for a fun way to explore programming for the first time, then this course could be a great fit for you!
You also helped to create a new course called “Fundamentals of Data Science,” which is offered in our Online program as well as in our Durham and Morganton residential programs. What’s that course about, and why is data science important?
Data science is fundamentally about using data to draw meaningful conclusions about the world around you. You can do that through collecting data to visualize it in a compelling way, through rigorous statistical analysis to determine how likely your sample reveals anything conclusive, or to use data you have to make predictions about things that haven't yet occurred. The Foundations of Data Science course taught at NCSSM teaches students how to use the Python programming language to complete tasks in each of these three areas of data science: data visualization, inferential statistics, and prediction. Knowing how to work with data is extremely important, regardless of your career or academic interests, as data collection and analysis allow decisions to be made based on facts and reason, not a gut feeling or anecdotal evidence that is often rooted in bias and/or incorrect information.
You served as Dean of Mathematics for a number of years and have now taken on a new role as Dean of Data Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. What will you be doing in this new role, and what excites you about it?
In this new role I'll be working to connect people within and beyond NCSSM to help develop the next generation of interdisciplinary courses for our students. I'm so excited to be working in this new capacity because as the world continues to grow and evolve, I believe that the boundaries and silos of academic disciplines will continue to blur and disappear. Students should be able to seize the opportunity to use biological principles in a math course, computer programming in their physics courses, and data science in their art courses. We know that any task worth doing isn't always neatly compartmentalized into a single discipline. The sooner we can teach our students to work between and across disciplines, the sooner they'll be able to tackle the messy problems of their generation, none of which fall nicely to a single person working in a single area of expertise.
Was there any particular teacher (at any time in your school career) who was particularly influential, and why?
I was fortunate enough to have several teachers in high school who made a big impact on me. Both Mr. Piece, my chemistry teacher, and Mrs. Wall, my geometry teacher, stood out as influential during those formative years. When I reflect on the courses I took with them, I remember very little of the material—much to their dismay, I'm sure. However, what memories remain to this day is that they believed in me and pushed me to give my best every day. They made learning fun and attending class something to look forward to!
What do you love most about NCSSM-Online?
I love connecting with students from all over North Carolina and hearing about the amazing things they do in their home high schools and local communities. I've had students who have been in award-winning marching bands, presidents of the honor society, and state champions in their sports. I'm always so impressed with the diversity of interests that students have, and their willingness to share their lives with their classmates and teachers.
Any tips or words of advice for Online students?
Two words: time management! Most NCSSM-Online classes can't be saved up and done only on the weekends. You should plan to complete a little of your work each day just as you do in your regular classes at your home high school. Students who take this approach often can easily complete their assignments with time to spare, figure out early in the week if they'll need to get some help from a classmate or teacher, and still have time before the due date to set up a meeting to get the help they need.
What are some of your interests beyond teaching, mathematics, and data science? Is there a “fun fact” you’d like to share?
I'm an avid runner, and I'm looking forward to running the Richmond Half Marathon this fall. My speediest days are likely behind me, but I just love to get out with some friends and get some exercise. I enjoy traveling to other states and countries and hiking while I'm there to get a feel for the local flora and fauna—and trying out the great restaurants after a long day on the trail to taste the local specialties. When I'm not on my two feet running or roaming, you can find me on my Vespa scooter around the streets of Durham, doing my best Luca impression.
Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
We're so happy that you're a part of our NCSSM-Online community. If you ever need anything or want to give feedback, please reach out to someone: your teacher, the ORC team, or part of the Academic Programs team. We love to hear from you and make sure you're getting the most of your two years in the NCSSM-Online Program. I hope you have a fantastic year!