Entrepreneurial students at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) are collaborating on a concept that aims to change the way they and their classmates learn. Their idea already has attracted the attention of several Harvard startup initiatives and earned them a spot as semifinalists in the university’s 2020 President’s Innovation Challenge.
“Today’s students use YouTube and Google for everything. We realized we could make dentistry more applicable to the modern learner. We saw a need for our generation to have access to modern videos and technology while learning and developing their clinical skills in dental school,” said Leela Breitman, DMD21.
Along with teammates Jennifer Lee, DMD21, Emily Van Doren, DMD22, Karen He, DMD21, and Alice Li, DMD23, Breitman recognized that HSDM classmates and peers from other dental schools often were going to YouTube to brush up on dental procedures they learned in class.
However, YouTube videos from professional dentists usually don’t target the students’ skill level, nor are they academically verified as an educational research. The team then came up with the My Dental Key online platform to compliment classroom instruction by providing student-focused video demonstrations, illustrations, and step-by-step best practice instructions for basic dental procedures.
“We learn dental procedures in lecture and practice in the preclinical lab, but when you’re faced with performing the procedure on a patient three or four months later, this tool will be a great reference to look back to,” Lee said.
The team enlisted faculty mentors Supattriya Chutinan, DDS, MSD, instructor in restorative dentistry and biomaterials sciences, and Hiroe Ohyama, DDS, MMSc, PhD, DMD, assistant professor of restorative dentistry and biomaterials sciences and director of predoctoral operative dentistry, to help advise them.
“We’re building our videos and platform from the student perspective, and everything is verified by our faculty to ensure clinical accuracy,” said Breitman, whose background in art has been useful in creating medical illustrations for the videos.
Each member of the team brings different expertise and perspectives from their various class years.
“We’re trying to make the videos very relevant, modern, and concise for new learners,” said Van Doren. She and Li are currently learning some of the concepts in class that will be in the videos, so they provide valuable feedback in real time as they learn them.
“The first time I learned about the idea of using the web-based teaching tool in the dental curriculum, I was immediately impressed by this innovation. These students have been working very hard and are so creative,” said Chutinan. “Their invention could be one of the most innovative educational technologies to enhance student learning in the dental curriculum.”
The team is now working on preclinical operative videos with amalgam and composite procedures that are applicable to early-stage learners. They plan to tackle restorative preclinical procedures next.
“Dentistry is a field that is changing constantly. With My Dental Key, we can provide up-to-date information in an easily accessible way,” said He.
The team has received a grant from the American Dental Education Association and three grants from Operation Impact, an organization funded by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching that supports budding entrepreneurs in education. With this funding, they purchased video equipment, editing software, electronic illustration software, and website hosting that allowed them to create a pilot version of their product.
In January, they entered the 2020 President’s Innovation Challenge to compete with student startups across the university and were invited to pitch their idea at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab).
“While the other teams were in suits, we were the only team that showed up in scrubs because we are always running out of the door of the clinic to get to the i-Lab in Allston. ‘You must be the dental students,’ people said, so scrubs have kind of become our trademark,” said Breitman.
My Dental Key was chosen as a semifinalist within the i-Lab Life Science Track and is now part of an intense incubator program designed to accelerate its progress and prepare the team to compete for the $75,000 grand prize in May. The team recently participated in a mentor matchmaking event and connected with a mentor with a background in management consulting who will advise them on business strategies.
The experience has been time-consuming for the students as they juggle class and clinic, they said, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“A lot of us want to be educators, so this is our way to make our mark on dental education. We’re learning a lot in the process of making this,” said Lee.
“As a student, I often feel I’m going through the curriculum as a passive receiver of information, so this project has been an amazing opportunity to be on the other side of it and to help improve something I’m a part of,” said He.
The students say they have high hopes the project will serve as a means of standardizing and democratizing dental education globally.
“I am so proud of the students and their accomplishments,” said Ohyama. “My Dental Key is a unique concept, and I’m excited to see its potential to teach dental students not only at HSDM but also nationally and globally.”