New dentistry elective lets students explore career options in the dental community

The inaugural offering of a new fourth-year dentistry program elective introduces practice options, encourages students to connect with future colleagues and patients in the community.

19 January 2023

The next time you go to the dentist you might see a fresh face — a University of Alberta dental student taking part in a new course that gives them valuable in-person experience. 

The two-week course, DDS 542 - Advance Elective Experiences, offers fourth-year dental students the opportunity to visit community private-practice dental clinics, giving them exposure to the various practice options available to them when they complete their program.

“This new course is geared towards having our students ready for private practice by the time they're in fourth year,” explains Dr. Suzy Depledge, the Department of Dentistry’s comprehensive care director, who led the development of the course. “But more than that, it gives students the opportunity to explore what the direction of their career path might be.”

“I think it's a unique learning opportunity for dental students,” says Depledge. “We've had some students go to pediatric dentist offices, or an oral surgery practice, for example, to learn more about what the work is like if they choose that as a specialty,” says Depledge.

Depledge credits the availability of this new course to the development of a new curriculum in the dental school, overseen by Dr. Steve Patterson, professor and associate chair in the Department of Dentistry, who envisioned more opportunities for students to experience community practice first-hand.  Before the course was formally integrated into the curriculum, Patterson had already been taking students into community clinics and developing relationships with practicing dentists. Dr. Deb Crowfoot, the second graduated Indigenous dentist in Canada, was one of the community dentists who welcomed students into his clinics, giving them exposure to the wide range of dental specialties his team members practice. 

A dentistry curriculum redesign with greater focus on preparing students for private practice — initiated in 2015 and implemented in the 2019/2020 academic year — paved the way for those community visits to become the formal DDS 542 elective. “I was lucky enough to get involved in my role in the School as the Elective Course Director. I was given a vision and the opportunity free rein to develop this course, and it’s been rewarding to see the excitement on behalf of the students to this new learning opportunity,” explains Depledge. 

Crowfoot has remained involved, with three students this academic year joining him at his practices in Saddle Lake and Edmonton, as well as at his Edmonton surgical clinic. “They get to see how it's done in the real world, and they see a wide variety of dentistry. You can really get your feet wet. And the staff they work with in my clinics are amazing,” says Crowfoot. 

Ed Gu, one of the elective students Crowfoot hosted, agrees. “The reason I chose this elective was because I wanted something that would allow me to get exposure to a dental clinic in the real world. I thought that was especially interesting to have an opportunity to see how a dental clinic in a First Nations community works, because it's an experience you normally wouldn’t get when you live in a city.”  

Depledge notes that participating students aren’t actually practicing dentistry. Instead, the mentorship they experience gives them a chance to reflect on the kind of career they want and determine the skills they need to develop in order to pursue that career. She believes the students also benefit from being outside of the usual university settings. “When they're finished their four years with us, they’ve been engaged with the community in a way that's socially responsible. They’ve learned the value of being connected to the community and what it looks like to be a leader in your community,” she explains. 

The elective was implemented in the 2019-20 academic year, but because it is offered only in the final year of the dentistry program, the first cohort didn’t get to participate until 2021-22. It’s been well received, which Depledge credits to the dentists and staff in the participating community clinics. “The dental practitioners who are mentors for the electives,are very well engaged with the students; they’re natural teachers who like to teach,” she explains. 

The course has been a success in its first year, with 33 students participating, and Depledge say it will  increase to 52 students next year.  Based on experiences that current students report, the program won’t have any trouble filling all of the seats. “The fourth-year elective program is an irreplaceable addition to U of A’s DDS education. It provides us students with the ability to take a deep dive into a topic that we otherwise wouldn’t as easily be able to take,” says participant James Kwan. “This one week has completely re-shaped my future plans and goals. I highly value the school of dentistry’s commitment to giving us students as many diversifying opportunities as possible to help everyone find or confirm their passions in the field of dentistry.” After spending a week with Pediatric dentist Dr. Graham, James Kwan has decided to pursue a career in pediatric dentistry.