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What is scarier, sharks or math? Learn about the professor who hopes to change your answer

Gibson-Dee traveled the globe as a children’s entertainer for 20 years. Photo courtesy of Haley Jordan/Connect.

Kathleen Gibson-Dee has been a professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) for over five years, but she hasn’t always taught math. There was a time when Gibson-Dee performed her original music across the globe. There was a time, even, when Gibson-Dee was across the globe lobbying her rights as a woman. There was a time when Gibson-Dee’s name was on the front page of an Israeli newspaper as it used her lyrics to try and broker peace with Palestine. No, Gibson-Dee hasn’t always taught math, but she’ll say there’s no place she’d rather be than Coquina Hall making Powerpoints, and sometimes vegan cookies, for her well-loved math students. 

It is easy to recognize Gibson-Dee on campus. Her silver hair falls straight, reaching near her waist. She’s frequently wrapped in some soft, floral-patterned dress, complemented with an infectious smile. Gibson-Dee is sincere, well-meaning and confident.

She’s not surprised she ended up working at a university. Her family always valued education and instilled in her the same views. Gibson-Dee grew up in Champaign, Illinois. She’ll say that’s why she’s so bubbly. 

Gibson-Dee earned a mathematics degree but ended up working as a systems engineer for AT&T right out of college. She enjoyed the challenges of working as a telephone engineer until the birth of her first child. 

“When that baby came, I looked at him, and I knew I couldn’t leave him in daycare,” Gibson-Dee said. “So I took my maternity leave, and that was that. I let that career go.” Gibson-Dee supported herself with a home daycare business and other small businesses that allowed her to work from home. 

“I did whatever I had to do so I could stay home with my baby,” Gibson-Dee said. As her son grew up, Gibson-Dee began singing for him and his friends, and this eventually led to a career in music.

“It was just an extension of what I was doing, so I called it ‘mom on steroids,’” Gibson-Dee said. “So that’s how I moved into children’s entertainment, and it was great because I was a single mom, so if I was going to a school to do concerts, well that’s during a school day, and I was home at night. And if it was an evening concert, like at a library, I could take my kid with me… So it really was a great career for me while I was raising my kids, and I was very successful.”

Gibson-Dee has three children. She has one by marriage, a daughter, now 38, one son, now 29, and another daughter by adoption, now 27. However, Gibson-Dee’s youngest came into her life long before the adoption proceedings. When her son was around age seven, Gibson-Dee began having dreams about a small child. 

“In these dreams, this little girl would run into my dream and grab me around the leg, and she’s crying ‘mommy bring me home,’” Gibson-Dee said. “And it happened like every night, which was weird because it didn’t matter what the dream was, this child would interrupt.” This continued until Gibson-Dee decided to call an international adoption agency. 

“She looked Chinese, so I called an international adoption agency, and I told them the truth,” Gibson-Dee said. The agency told Gibson-Dee her story was not uncommon. 

“And everybody else thought I was completely insane. Single mom, self employed, low-income. But what can you do when your heart calls? You have to follow it, and if you don’t, you’ll regret it. And I try to live without regrets.”

“And everybody else thought I was completely insane,” Gibson-Dee said. “Single mom, self-employed, low-income. But what can you do when your heart calls? You have to follow it, and if you don’t, you’ll regret it. And I try to live without regrets.”

Gibson-Dee was paired with a couple who told her about a girl named Natalia who “had dark hair, and dark eyes and kindness written all over her face.” She remembers exactly.

The package sent to Gibson-Dee with Natalia’s information was delayed. When it finally came, she couldn’t wait any longer and ripped it open before signing. Gibson-Dee remembers pictures floating to the ground and mixing with the fall leaves there. 

“One landed face up, and it was the girl in my dreams,” Gibson-Dee said. She flew to Russia where, at that time, only a man’s signature had legal standing, and so Gibson-Dee had to fight for her right to adopt as a single mother. Gibson-Dee eventually gained legal standing and set a precedent for that time. 

Gibson-Dee’s success at finding Natalia was matched in her newfound career. Gibson-Dee spent 20 years as a family entertainer, singer-songwriter and author. She toured the U.S., was featured on CNN and BBC and was published in a myriad of European countries. The lyrics to her song “One love is all we need,” were even published on the front page of an Israeli newspaper in that paper’s efforts to broker peace with Palestine. 

“So that’s what I did for 20 years, was sing my joy to families all over the world,” Gibson-Dee said. “And then 9/11 happened … the money for the arts dried up.” Gibson had difficulty booking gigs and decided to once again make use of her master’s degree. 

Gibson-Dee’s gave a Ted Talk at USFSP on the mathematical patterns found in nature and in human bodies. Photo courtesy of Haley Jordan/Connect.

Gibson-Dee began teaching at Northwest Florida State College. It was at there that Gibson-Dee developed Jam/Quest/Request, a new system of teaching math that encourages learning over testing.

Gibson-Dee remembers feeling anger from the mostly-female algebra class. Gibson-Dee learned they were angry at her because she taught math, and angry at math because it had been an obstacle in their lives. 

“I was working with students who were stuck at maybe the fifth-grade level,” Gibson-Dee said. Math had been an obstacle for these students as they tried to progress their careers. 

Gibson-Dee, sensing this, decided to start class in a different way. Instead of jumping into a lesson, Gibson-Dee talked with her new students about why they felt the way they did about math, and what they thought could help them overcome it. It was from this discussion, and more like it, that Gibson-Dee developed Jam/Quest/Request. The method devotes time to small group study before tests, or Jam sessions, separates large tests into smaller quiz/tests, or Quests, and allows students second chances at failed attempts, or Requests. 

“And that semester, most of those students passed,” Gibson-Dee said. “Those courses had a very high failing rate normally.” After witnessing these results, the math department at the university encouraged Gibson-Dee to continue her work and expand the program. 

“It was really just a dialogue with those particular students who had had the worst suffering with math of any students I’d ever encountered,” Gibson-Dee said. “But by listening to them, they told me what they needed … And so I learned by doing, which is, of course, the same way I teach now.” 

The school’s college algebra class had a passing rate of about 20 percent when Gibson-Dee was hired. After implementing the Jam/Quest/Request system, those rates soared to 70 percent. Gibson-Dee wrote a dissertation on the system, and since its publication, it has been downloaded in seven countries. 

“You have exceptional privilege in the world, and that also means you have a responsibility to use that privilege, not only for yourself, but mostly for the betterment of all. What good is it to make yourself rich if everyone else suffers? It’s no good, it’s nothing.”

“We switched the emphasis from testing to learning,” Gibson-Dee said. “Those ladies, back on that night in the first class, they had ideas that are touching the world … I wish all students could value education as much as those ladies did and do. I see a lot of students who seem to think that it’s a right of birth, and I wish it was, but it is a privilege. And if you go to any third-world country, or you go to any highly-poor area, all of the sudden, you realize the power of just being a university student. You have exceptional privilege in the world, and that also means you have a responsibility to use that privilege, not only for yourself but mostly for the betterment of all. What good is it to make yourself rich if everyone else suffers? It’s no good, it’s nothing.”

Gibson-Dee came to USFSP in the Fall of 2012 and was ecstatic to find the university supported her and the Jam/Quest/Request system.

“I was so excited that this university was focused on helping students with math,” Gibson-Dee said. “Because that’s what I cared about … education is, it’s the key to having a happy life, I believe, anywhere in the world.”

While Gibson-Dee loved traveling during her singing career, she now enjoys staying in one place. Gibson-Dee has traveled to 40 states and over 12 countries and recommends travel to students. 

“Especially to a third world country,” Gibson-Dee said. “I highly recommend Europe, but also go to somewhere where people don’t have an education. Where they don’t have all the comforts that we have … go and see how the other 90 percent live … and then come back with new eyes. It changes everything.” Gibson-Dee recommends students embrace new experiences, especially those that seem unfamiliar or frightening.

“That’s what takes you from adolescence to a rich, vibrant, adult life,” Gibson-Dee said. “It’s being willing to go out of your comfort zone, to go places you never thought you’d go, to be uncomfortable, to be angry, to be sad, to be excited. Because when you have that full symphony of human experience, then you’re fully alive, and without that, you’d miss so much.” 

Now, Gibson-Dee can often be found bringing her students vegan cookies and screening pictures of great whites.

“What is scarier, sharks or math?” Gibson-Dee often asks her students on the first day of class. She hopes, by the end of the semester, they will pick fractions over 14 rows of teeth. 


To watch Gibson-Dee’s Ted Talk at USFSP, click here: Beauty…Mystery…Math | Kathleen Gibson-Dee | TEDxUSFSP


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