The brightly lit laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry buzzed with the sounds associated with a dentist office: the pressurized suck of the saliva ejector to the scrunch of a patient moving in the leather chair.
But punctuating the din came a surprising sound: laughter – and not the nervous kind.
Seven sixth-graders from the University of Maryland, Baltimore CURE Scholars Program were genuinely enjoying themselves on a recent Saturday morning as they received sealant treatment from dental hygiene students at the school.
"Thank you. That was cool," exclaimed Najah Johnson, 11, as she flashed a dimpled grin revealing her pearly whites .
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"You were the perfect patient," said Mayson Lawyer, a junior at the dental school.
The students received more than $3,000 worth of sealants – a non-painful procedure in which a protective coating is placed on teeth in order to fight tooth decay – as part of a day of oral health care. The day also offered those students and three others an opportunity to learn how to use real dental instruments while working on a model of the mouth, or oral cavity, known as a typodont, which allowed the students to practice some of the dental hygiene skills they learned during the earlier lessons.
"They need to be engaged," said Leila H. Liberman, a clinical instructor in the dentistry school's department of periodontics. "There needs to be some type of collaboration. There needs to be knowledge transfer."
Parents and siblings of the students also were encouraged to attend. They learned dental health techniques through their own series of activities and instructions.
"It's not just scholars learning. It's families learning," said Dr. Robin Saunders, executive director of the university's CURE program – short for Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences.
The program targets middle-school-age students and exposes them to careers in the sciences with the hope of giving them additional support at an age when they can fall behind. In addition to twice-weekly meetings the students have with mentors, the participants also have a weekly activity that reinforces science skills, such as dissecting animals or working with circuits.
"This program is going to bring a lot of hope to families and students," Saunders said. "We want to expose our students to (as) many facets of health care as possible."
Najah, an East Baltimore resident who attends Green Street Academy, has been part of the CURE program since the school year began.
Her mother said she started the program reading at a third-grade level. Now, she reads at a fifth-grade level and is expected to finish the year at a sixth-grade reading level.
"She loves coming to CURE," her mother, Christiana Johnson, said. "Her grades have really improved. Her mentors have really helped her."
Her father, Robert Johnson, has noticed a change in his daughter, too.
"It has helped her confidence," he said. "She has more friends who want to achieve in life."
Najah said that the program will help her with her eventual goal of becoming a veterinarian.
"I like animals. And I like being a doctor," she said confidently. "Today was really fun. I actually like going to the dentist."