Tennessee Alumnus

Learning by Practice

The College of Dentistry at the Health Science Center in Memphis has the largest dental simulation lab in the country.

By Tim Bullard

The UTHSC College of Dentistry has been at the forefront of using technology to train dentists. A $1 million grant from Delta Dental of Tennessee in March was used to upgrade the college’s dental simulation lab. The installation was completed in July, and the new equipment was ready for students who started in August, giving UTHSC 36 dental simulation units.

“It’s the largest dental simulation lab in the country,” says Timothy Hottel, dean of the college. “Most schools have, at the most, half of what we have.”

So what exactly is this dental simulation equipment? Each student is given a mannequin head resembling a real human head, complete with plastic teeth that can be removed. Using technology that is essentially the same as a GPS device in a car, the machine tracks the students’ moves and grades how well they are performing a given task.

“We used to send incoming students a CD during the summer,” says Scott Hollis, an assistant professor of prosthodontics at UTHSC who was hired in 2004 to run the lab. “Then we had to take 16 to 24 classroom hours reviewing that material. Now we just send them to a website through Blackboard in the summer, so they come in knowing how everything works.”

By working in a setting that’s so realistic, students learn far more quickly than in a traditional lab. “The more teeth they prepare, the more proficient they become,” Hollis says. Students use the dental simulation equipment throughout their first and second years, but even post-graduates use it for various implant-related functions.

While the software is the same as before, the new hardware is much more user-friendly. It is so friendly, in fact, that it tells students whether they are sitting in an ergonomically correct way before it will start.

“Students want to go to a place that’s got all the bells and whistles,” Hottel says. “Well, we do.”

Above image: Dental students at the UT Health Science Center practice procedures in the simulation lab. Photo by Scott Hollis