Project HOPE molds future health care professionals

Students use specialized stethoscopes to listen to the Harvey simulator.

With their eyes glued to their hands, groups of middle school students huddled around individual dental stations to learn firsthand how to fill a cavity. Their hands would soon put this new knowledge into practice, as each student would get a chance to fill a cavity on a tooth prototype.

Between the fillings, these students also got a chance to interact with UI dental students in the simulation lab at Dental Science Building on the University of Iowa campus. As the cavity gets filled, eyes were eager for the very last step. With a quick couple of flashes of a blue light, the filling, once soft and gel-like, is hardened into a solid cavity filling.


fyi photographer Tom Jorgensen visited several Project HOPE activities, where eighth-grade students learned about the work done in various health care fields. Click the thumbnails below for images from the daylong event…


From a concave divot to a leveled tooth, students walked away with hands-on experience, their own individual cavity-filled tooth souvenir, and a baggie of dental treats including a toothbrush and toothpaste.

This activity was one of 10 planned as part of the UI College of Education’s Project HOPE (Healthcare, Occupations, Preparation, and Exploration), a career education–bridging program that allows the exploration of health science professions for eighth-grade students in rural Iowa middle schools with large populations of Mexican immigrants.

For eighth grader Andres Lagunas Jr., becoming a dentist is his long-term plan. “I like to help people and work with my hands. It was fun to do this activity, and it’s good to think and plan ahead,” he says.

Seventy-plus students from Columbus Community Middle School in Columbus Junction, Iowa, took a field trip to the UI campus for a day of learning April 7. UI graduate students, faculty, and staff from various health care professions coordinated specific activities to introduce their field of expertise. Saba Ali, a College of Education associate professor and admission coordinator for the counseling psychology department, created and directs Project HOPE.

“You have practically the whole University community working together for a single important cause—increasing underrepresented students among health care practitioners in order to decrease health disparities among Iowa’s minority communities,” Ali says. “Project HOPE brings together many valuable resources on the campus community to help expose underrepresented students to possible careers in the health sciences.”

“Project HOPE brings together many valuable resources on the campus community to help expose underrepresented students to possible careers in the health sciences.”

Saba Ali
Project HOPE director

Students were broken up into five groups that rotated to different activities on the UI campus. Other opportunities included a pharmacy scavenger hunt and a forensics demonstration.

These efforts were made possible through a fund from the Carver Charitable Trust and the sponsorship of many groups on campus, including the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, the State Hygienic Laboratory at the UI, UI Health Care, the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, the Carver College of Medicine, and the Colleges of Education, Pharmacy, Nursing, Dentistry, Public Health, and Engineering.

Ali says this collaborative effort makes Project HOPE a very unique program because it promotes those careers less prominent, such as psychology, public health, and biomedical engineering, rather than focusing only on roles often portrayed in the media such as doctors and nurses.

For Aaron Figueroa, a third-year dental student, Project HOPE is an initiative he continues to support. “Being a health care professional and obtaining skills to help people is great,” says Figueroa, president of the Hispanic Dental Association and organizer for the cavity filling exercise. “But along with the opportunity to go to school, there is an obligation to give back and reach out, which is why I continue to do this.”