Pitt Dental Medicine Recognized with the 2020 Gies Award for Outstanding Vision

The University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine has been recognized as the recipient of the ADEAGies Foundation 2020 Award for Outstanding Vision by an Academic Dental Institution. The award acknowledges the visionary and innovative program that Pitt Dental Medicine developed, the Academic Career Track Area of Concentration (ACT ACRO) training program. The recognition of the ACT ARCO Program with the William J. Gies Awards for Vision, Innovation and Achievement Award will take place on Friday, July 24, during a virtual event held by American Dental Education Association (ADEA).

Addressing National Dentist Shortages

Pitt Dental Medicine has been at the forefront of addressing the nationwide shortage of dental educators by providing a robust training program in academic dentistry for students. To address future shortages, this comprehensive program was designed for students who are or may be interested in a career that trains them to teach future dentists. In 2012, the ACT ARCO program began as a single elective course, Clinical Teaching Practicum, for dental students to learn about teaching in dental education. This course has been offered every semester since then and became both beneficial and popular among students as they shared their positive experiences with each other, while student enrollment increased over the years.

The growing interest and increasing success of the Clinical Teaching Practicum inspired the development of a comprehensive program to fully prepare students for an academic career and equip them with skills in teaching, scholarship and leadership. In 2014, Dr. Zsuzsa Horvath, ACT ARCO Director, and Dr. Christine Wankiiri-Hale, ACT ARCO Clinical Director and Associate Dean of Student Affairs, developed a two-year certificate program rooted in a comprehensive curriculum that covered the three pillars of an academic career: teaching, scholarship and service. Notably, this program was developed several years before ADEA released its 2018 Policy Brief “Our Future Faculty—The Importance of Recruiting Students and Residents to Academic Dentistry.

The comprehensive three-tiered program to train future dental educators offers three different ways for pre-doctoral dental students to prepare for a teaching career: a comprehensive, two-year certificate program (ACT ARCO); academic career track elective courses; and extracurricular activities. The program offers different opportunities designed to meet varied levels of student interest and commitment—those who are resolute in choosing a teaching career to those who are just curious. Dr. Horvath’s philosophy is that the opportunity should be available to students to learn about and practice teaching when they are ready and their schedule allows. “We are very pleased,” said Dr. Horvath, “faculty support and enthusiasm for the program is now very high. Third- and fourth-year students are looking forward to developing and practicing teaching skills, and first- and second-year students see their peers as student teachers in preclinical courses.”

The School of Dental Medicine understands how much students crave such a learning experience and the opportunity to combine their interest in dentistry with teaching. “Not knowing what to expect,” said Dr. Wankiiri-Hale, “the number of students in the program has far exceeded any of our expectations. Students express interest in the program as early as the admission interviews.” In addition, the program is one of the most comprehensive of its kind in North American dental schools to our knowledge. The number of participants has increased from 6 students at its inception to 16 students in the current graduating class. While it is still too early to assess how many students will enter academia, recent graduates report the benefits of the program during their residency training and in their first jobs.

The ACT ARCO and related three-tiered programs to train academic dentists have attracted national and international attention both in dental education and other health science fields. Initial program evaluations have been performed and published: Training Future Dentists for an Academic Career: A Three-Tiered Program (J Dent Educ. 2016 May;80(5):502-16), with the goal of providing a possible model for other dental and non-dental schools interested in initiating similar programs. This article was selected as one of the “Top Articles in the Journal of Dental Education: 2016.” This article also was referenced by Dr. Anthony M. Palatta in the editorial From Pipeline to Mainstream: Increasing the Number of Dental Students and Residents Pursuing Academic Careers in the same issue. After the nationwide ADEA webinar, Preparing Future Faculty: The Time Is Now!, schools expressed interest in the program and currently, the ACT ARCO program serves as a model for adaptation at The University of Sydney Dental School.

Pitt Dental Medicine remains at the forefront of providing a solution for the shortage of academic dentists. The ACT ARCO, a visionary program, and the daily efforts of Drs. Horvath and Wankiiri-Hale in mentoring and working with students, deserve the recognition of the Gies Foundation 2020 Award for Outstanding Vision.