PCC’s Dental Studies program is your opening to an immediate, rewarding career
Oral health is about more than displaying a dazzling smile. There are practical and psychological advantages to a healthy mouth — from chewing food to maintaining self-esteem.
“Good health starts with the mouth,” said Sarah Marcus, Dental Assisting Education program director at Pima Community College.
And a good career in oral health starts with PCC’s Dental Studies program. The program prepares graduates with an ever-evolving curriculum, clinical experience and hands-on learning using the latest technology. Program graduates work as dental hygienists, dental assistants and dental laboratory technicians — fields with projected above average job growth through the next decade.
Dental Hygiene and Dental Assisting Education
Dental assistants and dental hygienists have different but complementary roles.
“Dental assistants work jointly with dentists providing preventive maintenance and restorative care,” Marcus explained. “Dental hygienists work directly with patients on oral health.”
For both, there is a growing interest in working in public health settings — schools, community health clinics, the VA and other underserved areas, said Karen Tam, Dental Hygiene program director. “We’re going back to the roots of the profession.”
(Left to right) PCC Dental Hygiene graduate Michelle Lawson instructs students Edyn Olson and Stephanie L’Armee
Dental hygienist Michelle Lawson graduated from PCC’s Dental Hygiene program in 2002 and was a dental hygiene adjunct faculty member at PCC from 2005-2014. For the last 11 years, she has been working at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System in south Tucson. Now she is applying to dental school.
“I love being a dental hygienist. The most inspiring aspect involves relationships and patient care. I still learn something new every day,” Lawson said. At the VA, “every patient is usually medically compromised in some way. Some have been diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatments, for example. Patients can be difficult — they might be scared or try to dictate their own dental treatment plan.”
Students enrolled in the Dental Assisting Education certificate program complete two semesters of study, starting in August and ending the following May. Dental Hygiene is a two-year program leading to an Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) degree.
“Many of our graduates have jobs before they graduate because of their externships in private practices, larger corporate practices such as Associated Dental, and in public health clinics,” Marcus said.
“Over the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of students who transition from the Dental Assisting program to the Dental Hygiene program,” she noted. “We are seeing three to five students a year following that pathway.”
Students move through the two programs in similar ways.
“Students start by working with mannequins learning oral radiography and procedures such as rinsing and suctioning,” Marcus said.
Then, they begin working on each other to understand what it feels like to be a patient.
In the second semester, Dental Assisting students spend three days a week in externships in dental practices. A PCC instructor oversees the students.
Dental Hygiene students in their second semester begin treating clients in the PCC Dental Clinic at West Campus and provide fluoride cavity prevention care at elementary schools. As each semester progresses, students learn more advanced procedures.
Dental Laboratory Technician student Victor Felix, Max Atwell instructor
In the third semester, dental hygiene students work with special needs patients who have extreme teeth and gum issues due to abuse or neglect. Some of the patients have never visited a dentist. The students begin clinical rotations in schools and in community health clinics and learn to administer local anesthesia. By the fourth semester, they see periodontal clients.
Both programs require graduates to complete rigorous exams for licensure. Dental Hygiene students, for example, must successfully pass two clinical boards and a state jurisprudence exam.
“When you graduate from our programs, you are prepared at a higher level than required by the licensing entities,” Tam said.
Two key developments are affecting the programs’ content and curriculum.
“The standard of care is changing because of technology, and the scope of practice is changing to include permanent restorative work such as composites and amalgam fillings,” Tam said.
New technology in particular will have the most profound impact. PCC students are learning to use 3-D imaging, which provides a broader, more detailed picture of the mouth and surrounding bone structure. Students also learn to use a digital laser to reduce bacteria in people with periodontal disease.
Dental Laboratory Technology
PCC’s Dental Laboratory Technology program offers a two-year AAS degree and four certificate programs that students may complete sequentially, said Max Atwell, the program’s director.
The AAS training covers orthodontics, crown and bridge, dentures and dental ceramics. Students also study lab management and materials.
“Those who complete the program may go on to become a department manager, a lab manager, or even own their own lab,” Atwell said. As with PCC’s Dental Hygiene and Dental Assisting Education programs, the “lion’s share of this program is hands-on,” he said.
The National Board of Certification in Dental Technology (NBC) offers a written examination for those who complete the AAS degree. Students who graduate from an accredited and NBC-recognized institution such as Pima may take a written examination to become Recognized Graduates (RGs), the first step toward becoming a Certified Dental Technician (CDT). RGs then have four years to complete the written and practical exams in any of six specialty areas to become a CDT.
Companies such as Tucson’s Dental Prosthetics, Inc., an established lab with 34 employees, are happy to have PCC’s program graduates move seamlessly from classroom to lab.
“We prefer hiring students and graduates from PCC because these future technicians are prepared to enter the dental lab world and make dental lab services their career,” said Andy Herr, president of Dental Prosthetics. “Historically, students from PCC advance more quickly in skill and pay than non-graduates do.”
Dental Assistant students Angela Jackson and Hector Castrejon
PCC recently acquired computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM) technology for Dental Lab students to use in making bridges and crowns. Students will begin working with CAD-CAM in the lab at West Campus this fall.
“Over the last 15 to 20 years the development of digital technology — from digital scans to digitally designed crowns — is revolutionizing the way dental lab technology is conducted,” Atwell noted.
For example, a new wand-like device enables the dentist to create a digital impression that can be sent electronically to the lab. The dental lab technician can digitally design a crown or a bridge and then mill it without needing a conventional impression or model.
Sealynn Lamond, a 2013 Dental Laboratory Technology program graduate, and Danielle Lauer, who graduated in May, work at Dental Prosthetics. Both came to PCC’s Dental Lab Technology program after finding their Bachelor of Arts degrees in other areas did not take them as far as they’d hoped.
PCC’s program “gives you the broad spectrum to see which area you like,” Lamond said. In the lab, “you fine-tune what you learn in the classroom.”
“On campus you learn terms and technology; here at Dental Prosthetics you learn specifics about how the lab works day to day,” Lauer said.
While Lauer and Lamond prefer to work behind the scenes, they take great pride and pleasure in the work they do to improve patients’ smiles and lives.
“Making a difference in how someone’s teeth look and function is what it’s all about,” Lauer said. “If people are happy about their teeth, that’s the most important thing.”
Step from Classroom to Career
Dental Assistant, Certificate
Earn: $12-14 an hour to start and up to $25 an hour for experienced dental assistants
Job Prospects: Projected 25 percent job growth through 2022
Extra Credit: The only program in Pima County accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
Dental Hygienist, Associate of Applied Science
Earn: $32,000 to $35,000 in Tucson
Job Prospects: A 33 percent growth in jobs through 2022
Extra Credit: Continue at Northern Arizona University for a Bachelor of Science in dental hygiene. PCC’s program is accredited by CODA.
Dental Laboratory Technician (DLT), Associate of Applied Science
Earn: $33,000 a year median pay nationally for experienced dental laboratory technicians
Job Prospects: A growing field, although not at the same pace as dental hygiene and dental assisting.
Extra Credit: This is the only CODA- accredited DLT program in Arizona. The DLT program also offers certificates in Complete Dentures Technologist, Dental Ceramics Technologist, Fixed Bridgework Technologist and Partial Dentures Technologist.
Source for salaries and job prospects: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Health Handbook, 2014-15
- Jodi Goalstone