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CU Dental School Taps Boulder Campus in Enhancing Hands-On Learning

Pilot capstone program combines disciplines, introduces students to medical campus life

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What You Need To Know

Q: What do you get when you ask a creative dental faculty member to solve training puzzles? A: An interdisciplinary, dual-campus student program that results in innovative and viable solutions. And everyone wins.

Dental students stuck off-campus – because of a pandemic or any reason – can soon log in to their laptops or tablets and rotate, maneuver and inspect the shiny tools of their trade from their homes.

Aimed at solving a COVID-19 problem, the project’s student creator hopes the digital tool library, along with 3D models of teeth she designed, will improve dental student skills training long beyond the pandemic.

And she’s not even a student on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.


Monica Chairez

Monica Chairez was one of two CU Boulder students who provided their training and ingenuity to fill CU Dental School of Medicine needs this school year while boosting their own skills and résumés. Thomas Greany, DDS, the brainchild behind the dual-campus pilot program, hopes it’s the start of many university-wide partnership programs to come.

“That’s the overarching goal,” said Greany, a clinical assistant professor. “How many schools within the university can we connect and get talking to each other so we can bring in different skill sets to the party?”

Program combines CU campuses, disciplines

With a background in engineering, dentistry and 3D animation, Greany is often the go-to guy in the school when a learning problem needs solving. Last summer, his colleagues presented him with the two requests Chairez helped fill.

Like any good instructor, Greany saw the opportunity to enlist student help. And for these projects, he knew he could use some skill sets beyond most dental students’ training.

He found those computer-science talents at the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder, which marries engineering and the arts to inspire creative invention among students. Its leadership was game, and Greany recruited seniors who were looking for capstone projects and had interest in medical or dental post-graduate studies.

Library brings tools of trade to students

“It was fascinating to learn about the surgical tools,” said Chairez, a Denver native and first-generation college student set to graduate from the ATLAS program in May.

With scans of dental tools in hand, Chairez used an open-source software program called Blender to create a virtual 3D library.

“I kind of manipulate the tools a little bit so they look realistic, and then I apply material to it, some color, so it looks metallic like the actual tools,” said Chairez, who has an interest in medicine and was attracted by the scope and importance of the projects.


Screen shot of digital instrument.

Pre-COVID, dental students were introduced to oral surgery tools by passing them around the classroom, Greany said.

“Now students who can’t go to class and touch and feel the instruments at least can go to a library that could live on the web and be able to tumble and rotate and zoom up on and look at these instruments just like they were holding them,” he said.

Tooth models fill need, cut costs

Chairez’s second mission was to solve a growing problem all dental schools face today: a need for more model teeth for skills labs. Partly because of improved dental public-health education, volunteer patients in need of complex procedures such as root canals are harder to come by.

While the dental school did find a company with 3D tooth models for skills labs, the models were limited and expensive, at about $22 per tooth. The school can use as many as 800 models per lab.

“We have about 7,000 CT scans of patients in our dental school with probably an average of 10 to 20 teeth per scan,” Greany said. “So, we’re looking at at least 100,000 potential tooth models that we can extract out of these CT scans.”

With the dental school’s access to the Inworks prototyping lab on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and its state-of-the-art 3D printing capabilities, Chairez knew that taking over the 3D tooth modeling would bump up supply and pare down costs for the school.

Using 3D software and the CT scans, she developed anatomically correct teeth, printing them through Inworks with all the layers: enamel, dentin and pulp.

“I think it’s going to save a significant amount of money,” Greany said, expecting the project to cut the $22-per-tooth price-tag by three-quarters, if not more.


Image of tooth model without enamel.

“And we basically have a vast library that we can print and let the students practice on anywhere,” he said.

Students, dental program and ‘everybody wins’

With online learning not something that will go away with the pandemic, Chairez said she hopes her work – which will benefit CU dental students starting this summer – eventually will be shared with other dental schools.

Chairez said the program increased her technical skills, and that she learned how to communicate with a “client” (Greany). She also made new connections, such as with Inworks’ staff, that can help propel her in her own career, she said.

“Plus, this is allowing me to get something for my own portfolio – something I can actually show that is helping a lot of people.”

Greany modeled the program after a similar successful collaborative effort he coordinated with the CU School of Medicine Modern Human Anatomy (MHA) program. That program has led to MHA students joining the CU dental school and other medical schools as well as publishing scholarly journal articles, he said.

“It’s been a really fun and energizing experience to see,” Greany said. “These students need real-world experience. We are able to give them these capstone studies and produce useful output, and everybody wins.”


Topics: Innovation, Education,

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Thomas Greany, DDS