PREPARING TOMORROW’S DENTISTS: Dental CSI offers clues to a dental career

Ashley Fowler peered into the manikin’s mouth illuminated by an operatory light and examined its teeth with all the care, compassion and confidence of a seasoned dentist. After a moment, she sat back, looked down at her gloved hands and smiled.

For Fowler and 17 other students from seven schools in two counties, it was the classroom come to life.

Students from Elizabeth City schools, Pitt County Schools’ Health Sciences Academy and Elizabeth City State University participated in the School of Dental Medicine’s Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists: Dental CSI program March 7 at the dental school’s community service learning center (CSLC) in Elizabeth City. The annual spring event provides students interested in health careers a hands-on experience in dentistry. Participants use X-rays and case studies to match them with patient manikins whose teeth reflect the visual and written clues; they also learn in detail about specific dental specialties.

Akeadra Bell

Fourth-year SoDM student Akeadra Bell works with participants in the Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists: Dental CSI event March 7 at the CSLC-Elizabeth City.

“Right now, I’m trying to explore different opportunities in health sciences,” said Fowler, a senior at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City. “This has been great, and I’d definitely do it again. It really means a lot that people are taking the time on a Saturday to come teach us about dentistry.”

ECU dental student volunteers, faculty and staff joined forces with Eastern AHEC and the U.S. military to provide the most interactive experience possible for students accustomed to learning about careers in the classroom—but not in the clinic.

“This is an exposure to a health profession that is so needed and that they never would otherwise have the opportunity to learn about,” said Claire Mills, director of Eastern AHEC’s Elizabeth City office. “It lets the kids see the importance of their own health, and it gives them exposure to the possibilities for their futures.”

Getting a clue about dental school

Dental CSI is one program in the dental school’s Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists (PTD) initiative, which provides hands-on experiences to promising students from underrepresented minority groups and from rural communities.

The initiative not only allows students to picture themselves as dentists, but also offers them resources that lead to success on their pathway to dental school.

To date, 40 (11.5%) of the 347 students who have participated in PTD programs have matriculated to the ECU School of Dental Medicine. About 25% of ECU SoDM students are from minority and underrepresented groups. The school’s pipeline educational programs geared toward K-12 and undergraduate college students around the state have impacted hundreds of students, including more than 60% minority participation. Nine of 52 students in the SoDM class of 2023 participated in Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists programs.

“As kids, we all have dreams, but reaching those dreams can be continents away for most,” said Lamont Lowery, director of admissions for the SoDM. “Being able to allow a child to further solidify their career path is very rewarding. It also champions the need for programs like these.”

The Dental CSI event also highlighted the dental school’s commitment to using the eight CSLCs across North Carolina not only to treat patients in rural communities—but to use them to serve their towns and counties through outreach and education.

“Our CSLCs are strategically placed in rural areas and are ideal platforms to expose students to the many opportunities in dentistry,” said Dr. T. Rob Tempel, associate dean for extramural clinical practices in ECU’s dental school. “This event was a perfect example of the innovation of the ECU SoDM teams and strong relationships with AHEC, local education, armed forces recruiters and private citizens.”

During the CSI event, students took turns examining the manikin patients—called DXXTR Dental X-Ray Trainers and nicknamed “Dexter heads”—comparing notes and clues to the teeth in front of them and carefully studying X-ray images. They used real dental instruments in operatories to examine each manikin for evidence of environmental factors that impact dental health—from smoking to not brushing teeth and not visiting the dentist. The students learned about how daily decisions impact their own oral health while getting a real-world view in a dental office close to home—making future careers more accessible and within reach, especially in communities where those professions are needed.

“If we encourage one child to further their education, then that’s a step in true regional transformation,” Lowery said.

From dental care to dental career

For fourth-year ECU dental student Akeadra Bell, the CSI event was a homecoming. The Elizabeth City native and graduate of Elizabeth City State University is also in the home stretch toward graduation—a fact that made her an even more enthusiastic example of health-care career dreams becoming reality.

The students hung on Bell’s every word as she walked them through different dental procedures and encouraged them to explore every avenue of dentistry while they were visiting the CSLC.

“Opening doors for future dental students is such a rewarding experience and a true passion of mine,” Bell said.  “As a previous educator, I pride myself on helping others reach their goals, assisting with these programs is just one way I love giving back.”

Bell found the CSI experience a learning opportunity of her own through watching the students succeed as they used their new knowledge to match X-rays with the teeth in front of them.

“Seeing them develop their own strategic approach to matching the Dexter dentition with the radiographs, was remarkable,” she said. “Their leadership qualities, critical thinking skills and passion to learn about the profession of dentistry gleamed.”

SoDM students begin to learn in their first days of dental school the importance of being active and visible members of not only the ECU community—but also their home communities and the towns and counties where they complete extensive clinical experiences.

Second-year SoDM student Brittanie Height, from Charlotte, decided to volunteer at the event because she has seen firsthand the power of the experience.

“I want these students to see that they have access to dental care and a dental career,” she said. “It’s important that we reach out to the community and engage students; it’s one way we can eliminate barriers to care.”

Tina Cole, student services coordinator for the Eastern AHEC Elizabeth City office recruits area students to participate in programs like Dental CSI and oversees the Youth Health Service Corps in eight area counties, using curriculum that encourages students to learn about health care careers and take a closer look at health challenges relevant to their communities.

“We recognize the difficulty in recruiting and retaining certain health professions,” she said, “and programs like this is an opportunity for students to see the importance of this profession right here in their own community.”

‘They are blossoming’

Clara Thomas, health sciences educator at Northeastern High School, roamed the dental operatories and clasped her hands together as she heard students make connections between the X-rays and the teeth they examined.

“It’s absolutely amazing to see them so engaged and learning,” Thomas said. “I’ve actually been tearing up. They are just blossoming.”

Sherrita Gavin, a Lumberton native and graduate student in biology at Elizabeth City State University, saw her pathways open up as well during the event. Her dream of being a dentist has followed her throughout her higher education experience, and the CSI event cemented her future goal.

Brittanie Height

Second-year SoDM student Brittanie Height works with participants in the March 7 Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists: Dental CSI event as they learn to read radiograph images.

“I am applying for dental school in the future,” she said, “and I try to stay active in dentistry to make sure it’s the right career path for me. CSI gave me the opportunity to communicate more with dental students, dentists, hygienists and admissions staff. The hands-on experience exposed me to how to properly take X-rays, hold instruments, and do impressions and sealants. The exposure and the conversation with each person I met at the ECU CSI event solidified my dream of becoming a dentist.”

Lowery said the firsthand view of dental education extends from participants and teachers to parents and guardians as well.

“We want to provide an opportunity for kids to make an informed decision about dentistry,” he said. “In addition, we want to offer specific programming that targets the parents and guardians surrounding oral health, how opportunities like these can benefit their child, how to pay for college and beyond.”

Melissa Roupe mulled over some of these considerations as she saw a dream take shape in her daughter Lauren’s eyes.

Roupe, of Greenville, peeked around a corner as Lauren, a sophomore at D. H. Conley High School, donned protective gear and gloves and set about using her hands to learn about dentistry for the first time.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity for her to learn about dentistry, but also have an opportunity to actually try things out for herself while she’s learning,” Melissa Roupe said, pausing to watch her daughter in action. “If anything, she’s even more excited about the future now. It’s just amazing to see her eyes light up.”

By Spaine Stephens, University Communications