Engineering Smiles aims to bring mobile dental care to those in need

A group of engineering students in Arizona, most of them women, is designing a mobile dental facility for use in Nicaragua.

Courtesy of Cheman Cuan
Sara Mantlik (far left, along with four of the five other team members of Engineering Smiles) has helped to design a mobile dental clinic that the group plans to send to Nicaragua.

While many college students want to make a difference in the world once they graduate, a team of  engineering and architectural students at Arizona State University (ASU) is already hard at work at it.

Six students comprise the Engineering Smiles project, which has the goal of designing a mobile dental clinic to be used to treat patients and train dental students in Nicaragua. Part of a one-credit elective course, Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), the team includes five engineering majors and one recent architectural studies graduate. It is working with IMAHelps, a California-based nonprofit that conducts humanitarian medical and dental missions.

“We were inspired by the humanitarian work IMAHelps volunteers have been doing in Nicaragua and thought that we could help support their efforts," says Sara Mantlik, a senior and a mechanical engineering student who is project manager for ASU’s Engineering Smiles team.

The students began the project in the fall of 2013, and this fall, their focus has been on  fundraising to help make the $180,000 project a reality. They have already completed a design of the trailer-based mobile dental clinic. If they can reach their fundraising goal, Ms. Mantlik says, the team hopes to purchase the basic trailer by the end of the year and begin adapting it in January, targeting May 2016 for completion.

The group already has received $10,000 in donations and the members hope to net an additional $15,000 through an online crowd-funding campaign. On top of that, a donor has offered  $25,000 as a match.

"That would basically be enough money for us to purchase the trailer," Mantlik says.

According to IMAHelps, volunteers will use the mobile clinic to provide free dental services early next summer in the greater Phoenix area before it is shipped to the organization's medical and dental mission in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, in July. The nonprofit will base the mobile clinic at UNICA, a Catholic university in Managua, where it would also assist dental students in their training.

“This project will benefit Nicaraguan dental students as much as it benefits Nicaragua’s poor,” says Ines Allen, president and founder of IMAHelps.

The mobile clinic will be staffed with volunteers and dental students working under the supervision of Nicaraguan doctors. Examinations would be provided free of charge, but patients would be charged nominal fees to cover the cost of dental materials and to help offset the cost of operating and maintaining the clinic.

In a recent interview, Mantlik says the project has connected her college studies with a real-world service project. "I started [studying] engineering in the first place because I want to make a difference," she says.

Mantlik has also participated in mission trips, including this past summer's IMAHelps humanitarian mission in El Salvador. Over the past 15 years, IMAHelps has provided medical and dental services to more than 80,000 patients in Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico.

"I saw the conditions that the dentists are working in, and the amount of people they are helping," Mantlik says. "That is what drives me to put in all of this effort."

Since beginning their work in 2013 the project team members have met almost weekly, including collaborating over the summer and winter breaks. Without experience in areas like fundraising, the team has experienced a learning curve. "It has been like a full-time job," Mantlik says.

She and her colleagues are driven by their mission to aid IMAHelps, she says, which is "so passionate about helping."

“The Engineering Smiles team has done an impressive amount of work to help increase the impact of IMAHelps," says Dr. Scott Shrake, director of the EPICS initiative at ASU. "It’s awesome to see the passion, creativity, and hard work of Sara and the Engineering Smiles crew becoming a reality and further supporting the life-changing services provided by IMAHelps.”

The majority-female Engineering Smiles team also hopes that its efforts and achievements will help inspire other young women to consider a career in engineering, to see the good that engineers can do in the world.

"You can do some really amazing projects that help influence so many people's lives," Mantlik says.

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