Connecting hearts and minds

Talking to hundreds of students in a lecture hall for the first time can be a daunting experience.

But Fiona, a 27-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, embraced the chance to speak to first year engineering students about her condition and the challenges it brings. She even threw in a joke or two.

Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects body movement, speech and muscle condition, limiting one’s ability to perform daily activities independently.

This past fall, Fiona spoke to students in the Engineering Profession and Practice course (1P03) to share the activities she wanted to perform on her own. Students were tasked with designing devices to assist her with eating, talking on the phone, taking out the garbage and picking out her clothes from the closet.

“She was commanding the room, leading the question and answer period,’” explained Elizabeth Hassan, instructor of the course and assistant professor, Mechanical Engineering. “To have someone who is so engaged with the process is really, really great.”

On December 6, 2017, 10 teams from the course were selected to present their devices at the IMPACT Showcase to fellow students, faculty, judges and their guest of honour, Fiona.

Innovative design solutions ranged from an electromagnet arm attachment for Fiona’s wheelchair to hold a garbage can, to an LED light system for her closet to help her select her clothing.

“This course is essentially trying to mimic the challenges students will face in their engineering career so we’re trying to give them all the design, prototyping and brainstorming skills they need to tackle really complicated problems,” explained Hassan. “They’re working on a real problem with a real outcome. That’s a profound experience for them and a great way to start their engineering career here at Mac.”

Lead instructor of the course and W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology Associate Professor, Robert Fleisig, partnered with AbleLiving Services on the project. Without hesitation, staff at the non-profit Hamilton charity recommended Fiona as the client.

Fiona received support from Markie Ryckman, occupational therapist and Lucy Sheehan, director of operations at AbleLiving throughout the process. The highlight of Fiona’s experience was having the two women by her side. “They help me through all my challenges,” said Fiona.

IMPACT started in 2014 as an interdisciplinary project that incorporated science, engineering and health sciences. This year, co-leads, Brenda Vrkljan, associate professor, School of Rehabilitation Science and Lovaye Kajiura, associate professor, Biology, recruited 42 occupational therapy students and 211 science students to volunteer their time to help 765 engineering students improve the design of their devices.

Yasmin Jolly and her team created a self-feeding device that won the “Best Presentation Award” at the IMPACT Showcase. The team created an adjustable tray and detachable spoon that clasps on Fiona’s hand using a slap bracelet so she can easily use the utensil on her own.

“We wanted to tailor our product to Fiona because in the end we wanted to make her happy,” said Jolly. “This wasn’t just about getting a job done, this was about potentially changing someone’s life which I really hope we do.”

“Personally I’m studying engineering to help people,” said Ben Li, Engineering 1 student. “It’s not a very common opportunity to be able to develop something as a student that could potentially benefit somebody. So being able to do that is a dream come true for me.”

When asked about her experience working with students, Fiona smiled and paused to hold back her emotions. “Thank you so much for helping me, and supporting me and having fun with me while doing this.”

Here are the winners of the IMPACT Showcase:

Fiona’s Choice Award Winner: |Absolute| Engineering Inc.
Names: Alejandro Aviles Garcia, Bill Nguyen, Adrian Sochaniwsky, Juan Tallavo and Gordon Zhang
Product: The Dispenser is a liquid dispensing system that releases liquid from a 2L bottle through a hose into the mouth by applying pressure to open the valve located at the end of the hose. Fiona is able to drink liquids, hands-free.

Best Product Award Winner: NextEra Innovations
Names: Rija Asif, Mahimul Hoque, Matt Klassen, Wenbo Liu and Nafisa Sarowar
Product: A motion sensor phone that helps Fiona use the phone on her own. When Fiona stands in front of the device’s ultrasensor, it causes a servo motor to turn and the phone is lifted to receive a call.

Best Presentation Award Winner: Metricanics
Names: Arthur Carvalho, Yasmine Jolly, Ben Li, Jarvis Wang and Ethan Yao
Product: 1-4-ALL is a self-feeding device with an adjustable tray and detachable spoon that clasps on Fiona’s hand using a slap bracelet so she can easily use the utensil on her own.

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