Every dentist (even yours!) was once a young student, likely as grossed out as you might be by the thought of putting their hands in someone else’s mouth. But what happens when you give middle-schoolers the chance to learn that the field of dentistry is far more complex and interesting than that initial ick factor? A group of 7th graders at TAF@Saghalie found out firsthand.

Lolinda Turner, Program Manager for Workforce Diversity and Inclusion at Delta Dental of Washington, ran a 4-part course to scrape the surface (and the plaque) of dentistry with these students. The class was introduced to the field of dentistry, including a few of the many types of careers within the field. Lolinda reached out to TAF’s Teacher Scientist Partnership Program to provide this series.

One session was a hands-on lab, where students practiced their dentistry skills. Each student was given a set of model teeth and the actual tools needed to perform routine dental procedures. One procedure was mixing the alginate used for taking teeth imprints. Each student also cleaned their model teeth and filled cavities with composite. Every model mouth was a little different, so the students had to focus on the teeth in front of them, without picking it up or moving it around, to better emulate working with a person.

As the 4 weeks passed, students went from squeamish to intrigued to invested. Lolinda was amused by the difference a few classes could make. She commented, “They changed big time! A group of boys were really checked out at the beginning, but I kept joking with them about snickers and red bull being poopoo on their teeth. By the second session, they came to class with all this research about how to follow this future. The “troublemakers” were the ones who really got into it! By the end, several kids wanted more and were disappointed it was coming to an end.”

The field of dentistry, particularly in Washington State, suffers from a lack of diversity. Lolinda, a Black woman and dental assistant, is taking that deficiency on with programs like this one. Students of color learn the importance of dental health and are exposed to a range of possible careers. Those who expressed significant interest can now access mentorship opportunities, with this first connection made. Lolinda said, “I never want a kid to go through what I went through in the dental field. I don’t want them to feel alone.”

If she had joined a workshop like this in middle school, Lolinda thought she would react like the 7th graders, reluctant then fascinated. “I would have been better prepared. Have someone say, ‘hey racism is real in the workplace, including in the field of dentistry.’ I would have been prepared for patients making inappropriate comments and asking to have manager recount money.”

Next year this pilot program will expand to include more students at TAF@Saghalie and TAF@Washington. Further in the future, Delta Dental hopes to partner with TAF by providing workshops for educators on ways to engage with students about dentistry.