Bulletin of Dental Education

Creating and Exploring the World of Dentistry

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(For more information on UDM's Workshops in Academic Dentistry programs, read Part 1 of this series.)

At the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) School of Dentistry, six students have undertaken a challenging program that exposes and engages them to “real life” teaching and learning, with the hope they will pursue academic dentistry in the future. The primary coordinator of the Explorations in Dentistry program is Dr. Michelle A. Wheater, Director of Research and of Student Academic Leadership Development and an alumnus of the ADEA Leadership Institute. Involved in both medical and dental teaching for over 20 years, Dr. Wheater is actively involved in mentoring high school, undergraduate, and graduate students through participation in many national, state, and university research programs.

Professor Kathi R. Shepherd assists Dr. Wheater with the program. In her 24-year academic career, Prof. Shepherd has served as a didactic, clinical, and preclinical faculty member and had administrative roles as Dental Hygiene Degree Completion Program Coordinator, Dental Hygiene Clinic Coordinator, Director of the Dental Hygiene Program, and Director of Outcomes Assessment. She is currently the Director of Educational Development at UDM. She has served in many capacities in organized dental hygiene and as a curriculum consultant for the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA); she was recently appointed as the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) CODA Commissioner.

Prof. Shepherd is also an ADEA Leadership Institute alumnus and credits that experience in 2001-02 for inspiring her to have an impact in preparing future dental professionals. “That experience inspired me to conduct a national study of the pursuit and satisfaction of new dental educators, which gave me a greater understanding of the needs of those new to dental academia. My colleagues and I published these findings in the Journal of Dental Education and later received the ADEA Best Manuscript Award,” she recalled.

Both Dr. Wheater and Prof. Shepherd hope that the Explorations in Dentistry program will influence dental and dental hygiene students to become dental educators. “Together we strive to support the needs of the students who have an interest in academic dentistry,” said Prof. Shepherd. “In addition to sharing our experiences as dental educators, Dr. Wheater and I attempt to involve as many faculty in both programs in order for students to gain exposure to a variety of dental educators with differing backgrounds.”

The Explorations in Dentistry program is a follow-up to UDM’s year-long Workshops in Academic Dentistry programs (see Part I of this story). The development of the program was initially suggested by University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry Dean Mert N. Aksu. He saw this as an opportunity to allow students to more actively experience the world of academic dentistry. “It consists of specific programming aimed at teaching students how to teach and designing a 12-hour curriculum to be taught by the students, intended for prospective dental students. The program is available to any student who participated in the Academic Workshop,” said Prof. Shepherd. Explorations in Dentistry currently has six students from last year’s workshop series. Prof. Shepherd coordinates the “Principles of Teaching” sessions, which include presentation strategies, construction of learning objectives and lesson planning, online instruction, knowledge and psychomotor evaluation methods, and assessment of instruction.

“Both Dr. Wheater and I assist the students with the development of each module of instruction by assigning faculty mentors, gathering teaching and assessment materials, and designing applicable Blackboard resources,” said Prof. Shepherd. “Each student is responsible for a particular module of instruction: introduction to dentistry/impressions/study casts, dental anatomy and occlusion, head and neck anatomy/local anesthesia, restorative dentistry, plaque control, and communication strategies. The modules are provided in two-hour blocks over the course of one semester in the evenings. The faculty mentors, Dr. Wheater, and I are present to support the students in facilitating their sessions.”

Explorations in Dentistry Students (from left to right): Shagun Octain, Punit Shah, Michael J. Vilag, Sarmad Askar, Cole Smith, Jenna Lau. Photo courtesy UDM.Mr. Michael J. Vilag, a third-year dental student at UDM, is one of the six participants of the program. Through Explorations in Dentistry, Mr. Vilag and his classmates—Ms. Shagun Octain, Ms. Jenna Lau, Mr. Cole Smith, Mr. Punit Shah, and Mr. Sarmad Alyas—want to change the minds of those students who are on the fence regarding health professions education and consider the dental field. “We want those students to see if dentistry is a better fit for them while their options are still open, and to encourage and educate students who have already found that dentistry is right for them,” he said. “One goal of ours is to enhance predental student applications by educating them about the world of dentistry. Completing our program will give them a certificate of completion, can help them get jobs at dental practices, and develop their dental vocabulary and knowledge to improve their dental school interview skills. Dental school is hard, and we think that well-informed students make the best dental students.”

While developing a topical curriculum for the program is challenging for the participants, the process serves as an introduction to the world of academia. “This program has really made me, and the other students, realize all the things that need to happen for a course to work,” said Mr. Vilag. “There are a lot of behind-the-scenes criteria and decisions that have to be made for a course to exist, let alone be successful. I think that sometimes students get the feeling that professors just show up and teach, then go home. We’ve realized first hand that this is not the case, and that a lot of work goes into designing a course.”

The students have access to several faculty members who assist them in devising their courses. “It is the faculty mentor’s job to make sure we understand the logistics of the teaching world,” Mr. Vilag remarked. “They make sure that the decisions we make are well informed and possible to do. They give us pointers from their own experiences, because let’s be honest, they do this for a living and know a little more about doing this than us. So it’s essential for us to listen and take note of what they say so that our course can be successful.”

Even with faculty assistance, the students still face obstacles as they design their course. “One of the main obstacles is deciding what topics are the most important to discuss. We first agreed on what topics were most important, and in what order they should come,” recalled Mr. Vilag. “Then we decided what our objectives for each topic should be and brought in faculty that specialized in that subject to discuss the best ways to approach it. What we essentially decided was for each student to teach one topic during a single session. That means every student is fully in charge of their own topic and it is their duty to plan for their session and assign responsibilities. Once this system was in place, it was easier for everyone to focus on what needed to be done to make this course work.”

Prof. Shepherd indicated that the program also had challenges outside of the student experiences. “Time, faculty as role models, and support from administration are necessary resources to achieve the results intended for these programs,” she said. “Funding is needed for travel as well as food for each evening session and materials such as typodont teeth, etc. to be used. Thus far we have had tremendous administrative and faculty support for the program.”

Mr. Vilag saw another vital resource necessary for the program’s success. “To achieve the best results, we decided to use the best resource we have to encourage dental seeking students: the dental school itself,” he remarked. “We believe that the opportunity for students to come down to the dental school and feel like a dental student is really important. Here, they can learn to use the dental handpieces and experience the dental student life for themselves. Nothing beats the ability to include hands-on learning when you’re trying to help students get excited about dentistry.”

The experience is also proving beneficial to Mr. Vilag and his fellow student partners. “I have a strong feeling that at some point in my future I will be returning to the classroom to teach,” he said. “I feel that with this training, I will be very prepared to start learning how to be a better dental educator.”

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