Bulletin of Dental Education

Service Learning: Good Use of a Student Dentist’s Time

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By D.T. Thompson

Students at my school, the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (UKCD), can select from a wide variety of programs for their fourth-year externship experience. I’ve talked with classmates who participated in specialty externships at Harvard, rotations with hometown dentists, and even had experiences in prison dentistry. However, the most unique and fulfilling externship experience I learned about did not occur in any of the traditional venues; it occurred in the back of an RV!   

    Each summer, student dentists with strong interests in pediatric dentistry travel to Eastern Kentucky with mobile clinics to deliver care to disadvantaged children. In July 2001, our college was awarded an America’s Promise Award for its community outreach endeavors, with particular recognition of the mobile van program. Dr. John Mink, faculty supervisor of the program, estimates that 300 to 400 children visited the clinic during its six-week visit to Prestonsburg this year.

    Students also derive multiple benefits from the program. “I participated in this experience so I would be more prepared to manage children in a general practice setting,” said one of my colleagues. “Plus, we had lots of fun.” Another classmate agreed that students end the program with great memories and strong feelings of making a positive contribution to the future of Appalachian children. Everyone also enjoys the relaxed atmosphere—and an occasional round of golf with Dr. Mink! Every participant I have encountered mentions that participation in this hands-on experience vastly increased their knowledge in clinical “pedo” and their confidence in managing pediatric patients.

Although I journeyed to Boston to fulfill my externship goals this summer, the UKCD pediatric dental experience is not alien to me. Everyone in our school is introduced to the department’s community service activities through a sealant experience in the autumn of his or her first year. Like students who worked in the mobile van, I finished my sealant experience with a basic command of pediatric management skills obtained by active use, as opposed to passive exposure by reading and listening. At the same time, I could make a positive contribution to my patients and experience firsthand the gratitude the children felt toward their “dentists.” I look forward to enhancing my pedo knowledge in another active learning experience this autumn.

I urge all faculty and students to support service learning at their institutions. If your school already has community service programs, become proactive in reinforcing their growth: assist in grant writing, publicity, and other critical endeavors. If your school lacks such opportunities, don’t hesitate to be a catalyst in initiating a program. Talk to your colleagues and school leaders about incorporating reasonable experiences into your curriculum. If such programming does not integrate well into the curriculum, don’t discount the possibility of developing a noncurricular outreach program. Our school’s Saturday Morning, Salvation Army, and Nathaniel Mission clinics attract many students looking for additional clinical experiences as well as an opportunity to render care to the underserved.

Finally, be certain to create experiences that will educate students in clinical dentistry as well as inspire them to “give back” throughout their dental careers—and lives. Service learning in dentistry helps student dentists learn valuable skills, while providing an opportunity for indigent individuals to receive care. Additionally, it prepares us for future philanthropy and altruism as members of the dental community and society.

If your school adopts this philosophy in the design of service learning experiences, it will produce well-educated professionals with a continual inspiration for future altruistic endeavors!  


D.T. Thompson is a member of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry class of ’05 and the Ohio Valley ADEA Council of Students Regional Representative.



The “From the Student’s Mouth” column is a regular feature of the Bulletin of Dental Education. Students interested in writing a column should contact the dental student coordinators of the column: Rhonda Giltner, Louisiana State University School of Dentistry (rgiltn@lsuhsc.edu) and Shawn Kimball, University of Colorado School of Dentistry (Shawn.Kimball@uchsc.edu.

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