UB Professor Moore-Russo uses games to teach math

Her technique helps students learn difficult concepts


Professor Deborah Moore-Russo loves to play Dominos. Her favorite version is 42, a game that she grew up playing with her family.

Her ability to incorporate her love of games into her teaching methodology won her the 2014 UB Teaching Innovation Award.

“I try to make things novel and fun,” Moore-Russo said. “I use many game-based learning elements. I play a lot of online games, like Clash of Clans and Boom Beach, so I implement those ideas into my teaching.”

The professor’s knack for mathematics stems from this early exposure to games and puzzles. She spent a lot of time with her family playing them and playing with toys that would allow her to develop spatial building, such as Legos.

“[Math] always came easy,” Moore-Russo said. “It was a logical pattern. There’s a lot of space for creativity in math, like finding the best path to the right answer.”

Moore-Russo utilizes strategy, like that seen in Clash of Clans, to explain her math problems to students. In Clash of Clans, it is up to the user to collect supplies, build an army and then strategically attack the enemy. These concepts are mirrored in her math by explaining how first data must be collected, methodology must be picked, and then actually attacking the problem (or solving) can often take many steps that must be the right sequence.

Moore-Russo has moved around frequently in her life because she was part of a military family. She spent her early life in Canada, but moved to different islands as a child, like the Bahamas. She settled in Oklahoma for high school and then attended the University of Oklahoma where she studied for her undergraduate years.

The professor returned to her island roots in Puerto Rico, where she stayed for 10 years and received her Ph.D. She ended up in Buffalo to be with her husband, who was in Canada.

Moore-Russo’s teaching style is derived from both her love of games and her experiences in so many different places.

“I would say I’m more culturally aware,” Moore-Russo said. “Moving to different schools every couple of years really made me want to blend in, so I started becoming more aware of the students around me, and the sub-cultures that each place came with.”

Moore-Russo began teaching at UB in 2003. Her research focuses on spatial visualization, communication and reasoning. She’s taught 21 different mathematics courses, ranging from basic algebra to non-Euclidean geometry. She is a faculty member of the UB Gifted Math Program and has revolutionized the way technology is used for math.

Moore-Russo utilizes “blended” classes, which meet both face-to-face and require posting and work online through Blackboard.

“I’m always trying to find new ways to get students excited about what I’m teaching,” Moore-Russo said. “I maintain a good balance between online and in-person teaching. What really matters is seeing students improve.”

Jeri Diletti, an adjunct professor at UB, was taught under Moore-Russo.

Diletti said Moore-Russo influenced her to pursue her passions and eventually teach math.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without her help,” Diletti said. “She went above and beyond to make sure I not only understood the material she was teaching in class but to make sure I was okay.”

Diletti said she was going through a difficult time when Moore-Russo took her under her advisement. The student-professor relationship blossomed into a mentor-mentee relationship in which Diletti looked to Moore-Russo for more than just help with concepts and math.

While everyone felt they could learn from Moore-Russo, Diletti felt a special connection to her professor.

“She would take time out of her personal schedule to speak or work with me,” Diletti said.

While Moore-Russo works hard to involve her students and engage them in math, she’s naturally shy.

Though Moore-Russo is not teaching class this semester, Molly Hamill, a senior mathematics major, expressed that she’s only heard positive things about the instructor in her department.

“I’ve never had her personally, but everyone who has just raves about what a great teacher she is,” Hamill said. “The way she teaches her material is really clear and turns complex math into simplistic formulas or ideas.”

Moore-Russo is an example of someone who is right-brained; someone who can understand numbers and analyze patterns to a degree that she can explain it with simplicity. Her ability to turn otherwise difficult and complex math problems into a fun, effortless game is a skill unmatched by many other professors in her field.

Tori Roseman is the senior features editor and can be reached at tori.roseman@ubspectrum.com.