UW News

December 23, 1999

Dental students study in a classroom of the future

University of Washington dental students are studying in a modified laboratory this year that may show us what many dental classrooms will look like someday.

There is a computer port at every desk. The new 56 multimedia workstations allow students to watch and review classroom lectures and notes on large computer screens. Students use the workstations to study dental procedures that they can then practice on the robotic “patients” ? complete with teeth ? that sit next to each desk.

The new classroom replaces an older system that is rapidly becoming obsolete. Previously, students would hear a lecture in one of the classrooms in another building, and then have to remember what they learned as they moved to a lab. The new classroom is a hybrid of lecture hall and lab ? with high-tech enhancements. To take advantage of the lab’s “hands-on” nature, professors break up the class into chunks of lecture and practice, says Dr. James Steiner, clinical professor of endodontics and holder of the Washington Dental Service (WDS) Endowed Chair in Dentistry.

“A 45-minute lecture can overload the students, so we’re going to try to give instruction in smaller units, like 15 minutes, and then let them practice,” Steiner says. “And then about an hour later, we’ll give them a little more instruction. We’ll follow instruction with immediate experience.”

The new lab reflects two years of planning. The state-of-the-art computerized audiovisual system was executed by Stage Front Presentation Systems of Savannah, Ga. The UW staff who worked on the project included Ron Johnson, vice provost of technology and communications.

“We expect to see this sort of design in many other classrooms. Representatives of other dental schools across the country have visited our laboratory and plan to go in the same direction,” says Dr. Paul Robertson, dean of the School of Dentistry.

The teacher still speaks on a raised platform, so traditional instruction can take place. But anything he or she has up there ? a chart or tooth, for example ? can be seen closeup on the individual screens at each workstation. Because it’s all recorded, students can replay any part of the class as often, and starting from any point, as they want.

“If students don’t get it the first time around, they can see it again. That’s the beauty of this. They might say, ‘I can’t quite remember how that was.’ And then they can run through the instruction again,” Steiner says.

The instructor can use a control panel to film teeth or anything else close-up, and then draw markings that appear on the individual computer screens to point to important details. “It’s just like ‘Monday Night Football,'” Steiner jokes. Because the lab is large, the professor wears a head set with microphone so all the students can hear. The headset means that the professor can walk from workstation to workstation. A camera can close in on one student’s work, which will be immediately visible in great detail at other students’ workstations. So students will be able to learn from each other.

“The idea is that you can give students all kinds of visual images while they’re working at the chair,” Steiner says.

First-year students use the lab to learn dental anatomy, studying the shape of teeth and learning how to reproduce and carve a tooth from wax. Second-year students use the lab to learn about fillings, while third-year students learn how to do root canals.

Fourth-year students, who have mostly clinical experiences, are in the lab for something a little different. Steiner puts the students into groups of six, to use the high-powered computers at their workstations to run business simulations. The idea here is to teach them how to operate a business, since most dentists will graduate into their own small businesses. They’ll be studying issues like marketing and motivation.

“We can do things in this lab from work on a tooth to think about a business plan,” Steiner says. “The potential is enormous.”