Spring 2013

Education with Byte

Jenny Citrin, D14, invents a computer game that helps kids teach kids about oral health

By Julie Flaherty

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Jenny Citrin, D14, works with students at the Josiah Quincy Upper School to develop iSmile, an educational video game app. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The weapons on his utility belt are a toothbrush and floss. Cookies and candy are the enemies. And should his strength start to ebb, fluoride makes him all but invincible. His name is Tom; he is a grade-school superhero, and he is coming soon to a video game near you.

Tom is the main character of iSmile, a kind of third-person-flosser app that educates children about proper dental care. Jenny Citrin, D14, a Schweitzer Fellow, conceived iSmile as an offbeat way to head off oral disease in the next generation. She is creating the game with a group of teenagers at the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. The students will eventually use iSmile, with its message of good oral health, to teach elementary school students. The idea is to hit young kids where they live: video games, mobile devices and looking up to cool high-schoolers (“peer-to-peer learning,” as the education experts call it).

“Education is the way we’re going to address preventative oral health, which is the most important aspect of oral health and dentistry as I see it,” Citrin says. Conventional dental education hasn’t made a big enough impact, she says, perhaps because it “isn’t that much fun.”

Closeup of the game in development. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Closeup of the game in development. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The team meets Tuesday afternoons in a computer lab at the high school. While snacking on pretzel rods and cheese sticks, Citrin and a half dozen teens talk about how Tom will have to navigate the game’s food obstacles. “Nutrition is one of the very overlooked aspects of dental health,” Citrin says. Tom will have to pick the good foods and avoid the bad ones—dentally speaking, that is. And not just the obvious ones, such as opting for apples over gummy bears. As the player reaches higher levels, the choice becomes more nuanced: apple or…banana?

They have a storyboard, but there is still much to decide. Will the game be like Temple Run, or have more of a Mario Brothers vibe? “I think we moved away from Pac Man,” Citrin reminds the team.

After some voting, all agree that players can earn points by completing minigames that show how to brush and floss properly. The ending is still uncertain. If Tom does poorly, does he get a mouth full of cavities?

The team breaks up into groups to work on details before heading over to the dental school for a tour. Some of the students are interested in going into health fields; others just like video games or art.

While things are going well, Citrin has to admit that getting high school students excited about oral health can be a hard sell, especially when she is competing with homework and college applications for their attention. Citrin didn’t grow up as a gamer herself (she plans to subcontract the coding to an outside programmer), and her primary teaching experience has been as a gymnastics instructor (she was a competitive gymnast for many years). Keeping things on track can be as difficult as connecting back handsprings on the balance beam.

Still, her mentors at the Schweitzer Fellowship Program, which encourages graduate students to address the health needs of the underserved, warned her that these endeavors rarely go exactly as planned. “They tell you, ‘You are never going to finish a project the way you started it,’ ” she says.

For now, she is enjoying hearing all the silly and sometimes-inspired suggestions that the students offer. “They have so many creative ideas,” she says. “I don’t know where they come up with all of them.”


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