A Fruitful Learning Experience

Kids get a taste of dental and medical school with hands-on exercises meant to mimic the real thing
a person suturing a banana peel
Dental students have traditionally practiced suturing on objects such as banana peels—now that’s part of Tufts’ Mini-Medical School program for kids. Photo: Alonso Nichols
August 9, 2018

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The patient was bruised, and looked a little green. A long incision needed to be closed, stat.

And here I was, in my gown, mask, eye protection, and gloves, suturing equipment at the ready. Too bad I’d never been to medical or dental school. I do happen to come from two generations of dentists, but, as I was soon to learn, genetics will only take you so far.

Grasping the needle-holder in a frighteningly unorthodox fashion, I attempted the first suture. “Oops.” “Uh-oh.” “What the…” All exclamations you decidedly don’t want to hear from the person who’s attempting to stitch you up.

But as it turned out, my patient’s name tag read “Del Monte.” And my muttering—and clumsy attempts at patching the wound—were ultimately of little consequence. I was in the Simulation Clinic on the fourteenth floor of the School of Dental Medicine, under the watchful eye of Associate Professor Melissa Ing, D89, practicing suturing techniques on a banana.

It’s the way most third-year dental students begin to learn the skill. It’s also an exercise Ing leads middle-school students through at “Mini-Medical School,” a summer program offered for the past several years at Boston’s Museum of Science and on Massachusetts’ Nantucket island.

“What we’re trying to do is extrapolate and expand on STEM education, so the kids all have an opportunity to learn more about the health sciences,” said Melissa Ing. Photo: Alonso NicholsIng conducts the program with student and faculty volunteers from Tufts, colleagues from the University of Connecticut and New York University, and a representative from Colgate-Palmolive. This is the third year Ing coordinated the Mini-Med activities at the Museum of Science, and the second on Nantucket; the district uses part of a state Department of Education Innovation Pathways grant to cover the expenses.

The program has proved enormously popular with Nantucket’s middle-schoolers, who seldom have the chance to go off-island for enrichment activities like this, said Michael Horton, director of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum for the Nantucket Public Schools. Last year, the twenty-four spots at Mini-Med were claimed in forty-five minutes; this summer, Tufts and the district expanded it to two days to accommodate more kids.

The kids get a bite-size version of what it’s like to attend dental or medical school, with hands-on activities, videos, and game-show type quizzes. “What we’re trying to do is extrapolate and expand on STEM education,” Ing said, “so the kids all have an opportunity to learn more about the health sciences.”

The United States doesn’t place very high in the international placement exams that kids take as they near high school. Exposure to STEM and giving youth opportunity to realize that health sciences could be a future career for them makes them globally competitive w the rest of the world.

Well on her way to a surgical specialty: a young student in Nantucket shows off her suturing skills. Photo: Ian Dickinson, D19

“And, we also want it to be fun,” Ing said.

At the Museum of Science twenty-some preteens—aspiring health-care professionals all, according to their own accounts—tackled the suturing exercise. The youngsters gathered around tables in the museum’s Cabot Lab and watched a video in which periodontist Nadeem Karimbux, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Dental Medicine, demonstrated proper suturing technique.

Ing had sent me a link to the video before I attempted my handiwork on the banana, and I had watched it several times before my foray at the Sim Clin. These kids watched it just once, but for most of them, that seemed to be enough although, granted, they also had individual guidance from the students and professors on hand.

Dressed in masks, gowns, safety glasses, and gloves of their own, the kids grabbed their needle-holders with gusto—the exercise used blunted quilting needles, for safety. They set to work patching their split bananas, with both “interrupted” sutures—individual sutures that are tied after each one is finished—and “continuous” sutures—several sutures applied in a row.

Proper sutures, Ing explained, need to keep the skin close, so the wound will heal without bacteria and other germs getting in, and there’s little or no scarring. Dental students have traditionally practiced on objects such as banana peels, hot dogs, or chicken skin, before training in the clinic; Ing said she learned the skill from her surgeon-father, who taught her on the family’s Thanksgiving turkey.

If the kids at the Museum of Science that day are the future dentists and surgeons of America, we’re in good hands—literally. There was not one banana in the bunch that wasn’t nicely mended.

“You’ve done this before!” I exclaimed to a girl with a silver headband and pink glasses, whose sutures were perfectly uniform. “Oh, no,” she replied seriously, giving me that look kids reserve for clueless adults.

On Nantucket, Horton reported, even the students who started the day with other career ideas in mind had decided they wanted to be health-care professionals by the time they’d worked on the bananas and completed the other activities—a student who wanted to be a lawyer now wants to be a surgeon.

Unlike the kids at the Museum of Science, by the end of my afternoon of not-too-delicate suturing in the Sim Clinic, I was exhausted, discouraged—and hungry. So, while I waited for the elevator, I ate my leftover patients.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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