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Undergrads in pre-dental society reach out to local schools

by Sherry Fisher - May 19, 2008

Mr. Chompers put on his best smile, as his teeth were brushed in front of about 100 elementary school children.

Chompers, a dinosaur hand puppet with larger-than-life pearly whites, took center stage recently in the gymnasium at Natchaug School in Willimantic, during a program called “Your Mouth, Your Health.”

Four UConn undergraduates who are members of the pre-dental society gave a 40-minute presentation that taught the basics of oral health.

“Brush your outside teeth in a circular motion,” Wen Sun told the audience, demonstrating the technique on the puppet. “Use an up-and-down motion for the insides of your teeth.”

Sun, a freshman with an individualized major in public health, developed the program during winter break.

“I wanted to do some volunteer activities,” she says, “and my idea was to teach kids, especially minorities, about oral health. I wanted to reach children who don’t have access to health care and may never get to the dentist.”

Since the program started in February, more than 1,000 children in schools around the area have seen the presentation.

“It’s been very successful,” says Sun, noting that the schools have asked for repeat visits.

The children are taught the basics, says Sun, who developed the presentation that includes information on how to brush, how long to brush, and what kinds of foods are good or bad for teeth.

A PowerPoint presentation illustrate these and other facts, and several small hand puppets are also used.

Sun told the children that at the dentist’s office, patients sit in a “relaxing, comfy chair” while a dental hygienist looks for germs in their mouths.

“Does anyone know what germs are?” she asked. One of the children shouted, “A germ is something that can stop your body from working.”

Sun added, “Germs like to hide in the back of your mouth and on your tongue. They like to hide everywhere, so brush your tongue and roof of your mouth.”

“How long should you brush?” Sun asked. Hands darted in the air as children called out everything from one to 20 minutes. When Sun gave the answer, “two minutes,” a child called out, “I was going to say that.”

Pamela Karkut, a pre-dental student, demonstrates to children at Natchaug School in Willimantic how to brush their teeth.
Pamela Karkut, a pre-dental student, demonstrates to children at Natchaug School in Willimantic how to brush their teeth.
Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

After a lesson in proper brushing, large cartoon images of foods appeared on a screen. The children were asked whether particular foods are good or bad for their teeth. The UConn students provided some answers.

“Milk has calcium and keeps teeth strong,” Sun said.

Ralph Riello, a freshman presenter majoring in epistemology and biochemical theory, talked about healthy foods.

“Vegetables are good for your teeth,” he said. “They give you strong bones.”

Pamela Karkut, a junior majoring in molecular and cell biology, held up a hard-boiled egg that had been soaked in dark soda pop.

She showed the audience how it compared to a normal white egg.

“To keep your teeth white and strong, don’t drink soda,” she advised.

Linda Thomas, the school nurse at Natchaug School, later said the program was beneficial to the children: “Many don’t have access to dental care, so knowing the basics is one step in the right direction.”

Jacqueline Luginbuhl, a freshman majoring in biology, said that presenting the program was fun.

“It was also a learning experience for us and the children. We’ll be teaching the same kinds of things to our patients some day.”

Riello said he wants to return as a presenter in the fall.

“I think this is a great program, because it promotes good oral health at a young age,” he says. “Some of the kids didn’t know soda was bad for them. That shocked me.”

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