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Dentists-to-be cut teeth at Simulation Learning Center

Learning about tooth decay in the lecture hall is one thing, says Carl McManama, but peering into a gaping mouth and filling a cavity is something else entirely. “You can’t just learn about it in lecture and be expected to do it on a patient,” says the School of Dental Medicine professor of general dentistry. Five years ago, McManama, the winner of the 2005 Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, launched the Simulation Learning Center to help aspiring dentists learn the basic techniques of operative dentistry before they encounter real patients.

The high-pitched whine of pneumatic drills fills the air in the center on a recent afternoon. Second-year students are practicing cutting and polishing three-tooth bridges, which anchor a false tooth between two healthy teeth. The patients, quietly reclined, don’t seem to mind when the students drill a little too far.

Actually lifelike mannequins called simulation units, these patients are attached to workstations outfitted with the drills, saliva ejectors, and other tools that dentists use in the clinic. There are 115 simulators in two large “teaching salons” in the center, each with a removable jaw that opens and closes realistically and is filled with synthetic teeth that can be configured in a variety of positions. A flesh-like rubber mask fits over the jaw to simulate cheeks and soft tissue.

McManama teaches Operative Dentistry, a course that introduces first- and second-year students to standard procedures such as fillings, caps, and crowns. Early on in the course, he walks students through eh procedure step by step. At the front of the room, he sits at a control panel, which includes a small video camera that sends real-time images to monitors at each student’s workstation. The computers at every desk have touchpad communication systems that faculty use to administer spot quizzes or full examinations and obtain raw scores and statistical evaluations of performance during the class. Instructors can communicate directly with individual students or to all workstations at once.

McManama first introduces the patient, a simulator at the front of the room, who has a name and a backstory and a specific dental complaint. He then walks the class through the process of diagnosis and treating the problem. “The simulation part of it is a lot like those first driver’s education experiences,” he says, “where the instructor is right in the front seat with you, guiding you through the motions.”