Last year at the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) School of Dentistry, a small core of predoctoral dental and dental hygiene students completed a monthly series of workshops. The Workshops in Academic Dentistry were designed to engage dental and dental hygiene students and faculty in an informal discussion of topics related to academic dentistry. An average of 15 students attended the monthly series, with a core of eight students attending all of the workshop sessions. Several of the topics over the course of 2010 ended up focusing on aspects of leadership. As a result, the 2011 series was reworked to introduce both leadership and pedagogy to interested students.
Dr. Michelle A. Wheater, Director of Research and Director of Student Academic Leadership Development and Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences, has played an active role in mentoring the students involved in the workshop. Assisting her is Prof. Kathi R. Shepherd, Director of Educational Development. Dr. Mert N. Aksu, Dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, has enthusiastically supported the program since its inception.
The primary goal of the Workshops in Academic Dentistry is to promote the development of leadership skills through self-discovery and awareness. Dr. Wheater sees several objectives that students can attain through the year-long workshop program. According to the program’s background documentation, students who complete the workshops should be able to identify eight objective areas, including defining the characteristics of their personal leadership style, identifying preferred methods of conflict resolution, using assessment methods to review and revise courses, and creating an environment of integrity and professionalism.
“The Academic Workshops program was designed to help dental students see what kind of leadership skills they possess as well to learn about the different types of learning styles that people use or need,” said Mr. Michael J. Vilag, a third-year dental student at UDM. Currently the Vice President/Legislative Chair of the local chapter of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), Mr. Vilag is one of the six students who completed the workshops program. He found the program extremely beneficial with regard to discovering his own leadership methods.
“The workshops program helped me realize that students who are verbal or visual learners had issues with the way I taught,” he said. “We also learned about dealing with conflict in and outside the classroom, as well as generational learning style differences.”
Mr. Vilag became interested in the program after he discovered he had a knack for helping students while working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for several anatomy lab courses. “Unlike some of the other students who were essentially doing it for the money, I came to realize that I never really looked at the paychecks to see what I earned,” he recalled. “I was more focused on being at the labs because I wanted to teach the students. I remembered the struggle it was for me to learn some of the material, so I was really excited to give the students all the little tricks to learning anatomy. The gratification of students raising their grades after just spending a little time with me was very pleasing! So, naturally, when this Academic Workshop program came around, I was very interested.”
“The mission of the Workshops in Academic Dentistry program is to provide a mechanism that inspires students to become future dental educators,” said Prof. Shepherd. Faculty are also invited to attend the program and interact with the students. “We cover a variety of topics, including the use of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to assess leadership style, conflict management, learning styles, the impact of generational differences on teaching and learning, the hidden curriculum, promotion and tenure, team building, and assessment of teaching and learning are provided by various individuals.” Dr. Wheater or another faculty member moderates each session as Prof. Shepherd facilitates the interactive components used to engage the audience.
The ability to interact with faculty was exciting for the students. “It’s very encouraging to see 10 to 15 faculty members showing up to our sessions because they feel so strongly about teaching,” said Mr. Vilag. “After discussing with some why they went into teaching, I can see why they are so motivated. Most of them disliked something in their own education and wanted to change the norm and make a difference for students in the future. When students new to the workshop start talking with these professors, it’s really inspiring. And when students see how much faculty really cares about our education and how much it means to them, it really does motivate us.”
The biggest obstacle to the program attracting more student participants is the time commitment necessary for the workshop. “Most of the sessions are provided in the evening, which takes time away from studying,” says Prof. Shepherd. “In addition to their family obligations, the majority of students are also engaged in other activities such as ASDA, community service, and student government. They are very self-directed, however, and highly motivated to accomplish their goals.”
Despite the time commitment, Mr. Vilag and his fellow students believe the Workshops in Academic Dentistry program has been very successful in giving them insight into the academic teaching world. “There is no commitment that says you have to attend these workshops or that you must be a teacher,” he said. “It helps you see things that are impossible to see simply as a dental school student. It shows you the heart and soul of what is behind the lectures being given.”
“I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the time commitment involved, more students would be actively participating at UDM,” remarked Prof. Shepherd. “It has also been a great way for faculty to share their expertise and love for dental education with the students.”
Dr. Wheater and Prof. Shepherd are excited that six students from the program are involved in designing and implementing a six-session series of lectures and activities for undergraduates interested in the dental professions, called "Explorations in Dentistry." (For more about this program, see Part II of this article.)
As Prof. Shepherd points out, the real rewards of the program won’t be seen until much later. “The true outcome will be realized when the students become dental educators in the future.”