Dental assisting program answers rising demand

College builds lab, adds day classes as job market expands

Anne Arundel Community College

August 30, 2006|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,Special to The Sun

Kathleen Weber had been a driving instructor for more than 20 years when she decided to put on the brakes and change direction.

In June, she completed Anne Arundel Community College's dental assisting program and is ready for a new career.

"My daughter, Suzy, is a dental assistant," said Weber, who observed her 27-year-old daughter in action. "She was fabulous at her job, so at ease with her patients." That led Weber to think, "I can do this, too."

Now she's one of 115 graduates of the evening program launched in 2002 at the Center for Applied Technology in Edgewater.

The program's popularity has prompted the college to add daytime classes this fall in a new state-of-the-art dental lab in the Florestano Building on the Arnold campus.

"We consistently hear from the dental community about their need for trained dental assistants," said Faith Harland-White, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Professional Studies.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of dental assisting jobs will increase at least 27 percent in the next decade. Maryland job openings are projected at more than 3,500; more than 400 openings are projected countywide.

Students in AACC's training program study dental theory, terminology, charting, sterilization systems and infection control, and they prepare for the Dental Assisting National Board's Radiology Certification Exam. Without certification, assistants cannot take X-rays of patients' teeth.

Daytime classes four days a week begin Sept. 11. Classes scheduled two and three days a week start later in the fall. Evening classes are scheduled at CATS in Edgewater and on the Arnold campus. The program's enrollment fee is $875.

The new lab was designed by Lou Ann House, a hygienist who works in a pediatric dental practice and the program's lead instructor. All instructors in the program are licensed hygienists with four-year college degrees.

The 960-square-foot facility, a contemporary blend of color-coordinated furnishings and finishes infused with light from a glass block wall, is divided into two work arenas. A lecture/multimedia center, in what AACC Campus Planner Richard Ensor calls a "smart classroom," has a projector, screen and computers. The "hands-on" area has a full complement of sterilizing equipment, a wall dispenser for plaster of Paris for making molds of teeth and a grinding machine for smoothing crowns.

An X-ray shield hangs next to the work stations, and students learn to develop X-ray film both manually and automatically in the lab's darkroom.

Fully-equipped work stations surround each of two dental chairs. The only thing missing is a human patient. Instead, students practice on "Dexter," a mannequin head on a pole that fits in the dental chair. Beneath Dexter's vinyl skin is a human skull complete with teeth.

To her students - from just out of high school or 40-something - House is considered more than an instructor. She's a role model.

While raising two sons, House was a dental assistant for 15 years. Then, while working full time, she earned an associate's degree from AACC. She transferred to the University of Maryland to train as a dental hygienist and graduated in 1999 with a bachelor's degree.

"A lot (of my students) didn't think they could do it," said House, "so it was rewarding to actually show them that they could. If they're single parents, I tell them, `I've been there.'"

Kathleen Weber of Gambrills was also nervous, but she had her husband's support. In fact, Edwin "Butch" Weber, thought she was so good with people he gave her the dental assisting course as a gift.

"Returning to the classroom after 30 years, and being the oldest student in my class, was terrifying," said Weber, 47. "I've got stretch marks older than some of (my classmates)," she joked.

Wages for a full-time assistant in Maryland in 2005 averaged $14.37 an hour. As in House's case, dental assisting is often the first step to becoming a dental hygienist with its higher educational requirements and its higher pay scale.

"The assistant must be a team player," said Sandy Abbott, a registered hygienist who worked as a dental assistant before earning her hygienist certification at Baltimore City Community College. "She plays a key role in the efficient operation of a dental office."

The first thing Severna Park dentist Dr. Lawrence Hooper looks for in an assistant is `professional skills.' "You need stability, good appearance and good communication skills between me and the assistant," he said.

"I can't work without one," said Hooper. He believes that dental assisting is a good profession for a parent who wants to work only one or two days a week.

"They can pick and choose their hours," he said.

For information about the dental assisting program, call 410-777-2325 or visit myaacc.aacc.edu.

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