By MARTY LEVINE
In just six years, the School of Dental Medicine’s training track for academic dentists has tripled its yearly participants and become a model for similar programs around the world — a feat recently recognized by the American Dental Education Association’s Gies Award for Outstanding Vision, the top award for programs aimed at battling the national shortage in academic dental professionals.
One 2017 graduate knows why the Pitt program works. Now an assistant clinical faculty in pediatric dentistry, in addition to working in private practice, Jamie Kaufer says: “I don’t think I would have imagined (teaching) as part of my career before the program.”
ACT ARCO (Academic Career Track Area of Concentration) aims to cover not only teaching but leadership and service as the three pillars of an academic career. It gives dental students experience in classroom teaching and peer tutoring; opportunities to interview current faculty about academic leadership roles and career development; and even the chance to learn how to train staff and patients in a dental practice.
“I found that I really just enjoyed sharing my experiences with everybody,” Kaufer said about the chance to teach beginning students. ACT ARCO gave her the tools to be effective as a teacher and as a student herself, she says: “Just the act of putting together lectures and giving them to other students” was helpful in her own learning experience. “This made me want to be a teacher, challenging students to think critically about the material.”
Before returning to Pittsburgh, she completed a residency in pediatric dentistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago, during which she volunteered to give lectures.
“The school wants to know that they are training someone who wants to give back to the community,” she says — especially since clinical teaching was part of the residency. Having ACT ARCO on a resume “might set you apart from other applicants. I definitely use the skill set that I learned, especially when I’m creating the lectures with objectives and follow-through and challenges.”
She says ACT ARCO trained her in leadership as well, since it gave her the chance to meet with and interview faculty about their work. And it helps in her private practice: “Even if somebody doesn’t plan to go into an academic calling, part of being a dentist is educating your patients.”
Expanding through the years and around the globe
Although the program is for third- and fourth-year dental students, “interest starts before students even get into the school,” says Zsuzsa Horvath, ACT ARCO director.
“They’ve looked and seen the program that they may not have seen at other places,” says Christine Wankiiri-Hale, the school’s associate dean for Student Affairs.
The program started in 2016 with just six of the school’s 85-member class, and now has 17 third-year students and 15 fourth-year students. They participate in lunch-hour discussions with faculty about becoming a teacher, administrator, program director or department chair. Other lunch discussions introduce beginning students to ACT ARCO to pique their interest: “We want to at least open the eyes of the first- and second-year students to be interested in academic dentistry early on,” says Wankiiri-Hale.
Faculty invite ACT ARCO students to help with classes, especially in simulation labs that teach hand skills to younger students. Their presence is especially valuable in first-year classes, says Horvath: “Faculty recognize that new learners and first-year students may be more comfortable asking questions from a peer than from faculty. Students also recognize that these students are closer to their own learning experience and are closer to their struggles.
“Through their teaching experience they get to talk to faculty like colleagues,” she adds.
Other dental schools have begun to offer similar programs to encourage academic careers in dental students, but they tend not to be as comprehensive, Horvath says. “It is on everyone’s radar nationwide to do something” about the national dental academic shortage. “We hope ACT ARCO is a model.”
In fact, Pitt has hosted joint programs with other U.S. schools to encourage development of such programs, and ACT ARCO is currently working with a Sydney, Australia, dental school on that country’s similar predicament.
“We are willing to partner with them and adjust some of the tools we have to their institutions,” Wankiiri-Hale says.
The Gies Award, Horvath says, “recognizes that our program is one of the most robust programs in the nation.”
She feared that COVID-19 might stymie the program, but it hasn’t, she says: “Even the teaching practicum experiences can happen (in person). If it could happen in a safe way, we made it happen,” with students returning to patient care in June, using all the requisite personal protective equipment.
Program surprises even students with teaching experience
ACT ARCO ends with a final-semester capstone course and then the creation of a teaching portfolio, which students can carry with them to residency and job interviews.
“It definitely helped me” when applying for a residency, says Barbara Sterniczuk, a 2020 graduate now in orthodontics residency at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health in Rochester, N.Y. She came to Pitt’s ACT ARCO program with perhaps more teaching experience than most entrants. At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, she had earned her master’s degree in anatomical teaching sciences, which involved delivering lectures at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
But when interviewing for her residency, she was able to show that she had geared her teaching during Pitt’s ACT ARCO program to orthodontics as much as possible, including lecturing the second-year orthodontic students.
While she still intends to be a private-practice dentist, teaching will likely be a part of her career, she says.
What attracts Sterniczuk to teaching?
“The feeling of being near students when they finally get it,” she says. “I just enjoy being in a mentoring role. It is very rewarding.”
She found the ACT ARCO experience unique, despite her teaching degree: “I had a lot of lecturing experience and lab experience, but I didn’t have any formal experience in clinical teaching, chair-side,” she ssay. ACT ARCO “gives a leg up if I want to apply for any sort of teaching position later on.” The program’s requirements allowed her to earn an American Dental Education Association teaching fellowship certificate too.
“I didn’t feel like it was a lot of extra work or laborious, and it opened doors for me,” she says. “Zsuzsa and Christine are excellent mentors and in general it was really an enjoyable experience.”
ACT ARCO as it continues to grow, concludes Horvath, may be not only a model for other dental schools, but possibly for other health profession schools who wish to encourage their own graduates to give back in the future as full- or part-time faculty members.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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