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Routine Dentist Appointment Leads to New Course in Predental Ceramics

May 7, 2011

Trent BurkettThe introductory Ceramics and Sculpture classes taught by Visual Arts Professor Trent Burkett are popular across the university as general education courses. One reason they fill up so fast is they are highly coveted by predental students, who typically make up half the students in the class.

That's because the Biology Department encourages predental students to take these courses as a means of building dexterity and skill with hand tools as well as promoting other valuable characteristics such as individual expression and visual literacy.

Fateful Trip to the Dentist

Last year while Professor Burkett was having his biannual cleaning with his dentist, Dr. Lester Low, a Pacific alumnus and graduate of Pacific's Dugoni School of Dentistry, he learned about the Perceptual Ability Test (PAT) that dentistry students take as part of a larger exam prior to applying to dentistry schools.  

The PAT assesses a student's ability to determine angles and shapes through logic and visual perception. For example, a student must determine how a complex geometric object can fit through an aperture.  

Impressed by the difficulty of the test, Professor Burkett said a light bulb went on. "I realized I could pattern a course from my existing sculpture and ceramics classes that offered a more in-depth focus on teaching students these skill sets," he said.

After a relatively rapid approval process that involved meeting with the Biology Department Co-Chair Gregg Jongeward and members of the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, Professor Burkett was able to offer his new course this spring: Predental Ceramics.  

Nader Nadershahi, Executive Associate Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Dugoni, who has done sculpture himself, was very interested in the idea. The dental school wants its students to be well rounded. Being able to appreciate aesthetics, develop individual expression, and articulate well verbally and in writing—all critical qualities a future dentist should possess—are promoted in Professor Burkett's Ceramics classes.

Predental Ceramics Class Challenges and Inspires

Predental Ceramics ProjectsThe new Predental Ceramics class quickly filled during registration with 15 senior predental students, and students have been clamoring for more sessions to be offered. For the 3-unit course, Professor Burkett took elements from his general Ceramics classes but tailored the projects for predental students, upping the difficulty level and mostly focusing on small-scale works requiring a high degree of precision. One assignment required students to carve a perfect one-inch cube in plaster.

However, creativity was also encouraged, and the final project called for students to create a "tooth-based" sculptural project—a creative larger interpretation of teeth built in porcelain and fired in a kiln.

These final works will be judged and awarded, just like a juried art exhibit. The pieces are also being displayed in the Biology Building.  

Predental Ceramics Projects"The creativity level of the students is impressive, and some show a very strong artistic sense," said Professor Burkett. "Since predental students have to take so many science classes, it's exciting to give them a creative outlet and see the outcome."

The consensus among students was that the course was very challenging but rewarding. One of the rewards is a PowerPoint presentation Professor Burkett created for each student showing his or her Predental Ceramics projects.  This will serve as great PR for the students, since they are all seniors applying to dental programs.  

Art and Science Connect

Professor Burkett recently revisited the dental school and showed pictures of the projects the students had completed. The faculty, staff, and alumni were very impressed. Kathy Candito, Director of Admissions and Associate Dean for Student Services, was very enthusiastic and suggested that Professor Burkett show the student PowerPoint presentations at an upcoming event.

"I am glad that the idea worked and that I can make art relevant to other professional programs," said Professor Burkett. "This course proves that art can be useful for science and other disciplines."

The interdisciplinary nature of the experience has been rewarding. When Professor Burkett walks over to the Biology Building, all the predental students know him. "There's a lot of interdepartmental and interschool collaboration happening at Pacific that people may not be aware of," he said.

He has worked closely with Biology Professor Mark Brunell, a botanist who teaches California Flora. The two have collaborated on field trips that combine art and biology students. He has also worked with the School of Engineering in developing plans to build a salt kiln—a pending Pacific Fund project.

The Future of Predental Ceramics

Professor Burkett hopes to get the Predental Ceramics class approved and funded as a permanent general education course. His long-term idea is to offer a "3-D Certificate" to predental students comprised of three courses: Ceramics (wheel throwing), Predental Ceramics, and his intermediate 3-D Studio course.  

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