For Betty Harper and Bill Harvey, it's the simple things that matter — like doing their own laundry.

Both live at a long-term care facility in Hamilton, Ont. Betty was born with cerebral palsy. Bill jumped out of a burning building and suffered a severe spinal cord injury. Both use wheelchairs.

So when first-year engineering students at McMaster University asked them what they could do to make their lives easier, Harper and Harvey had one answer: create a device to help them turn on a washing machine.

"I can't reach the buttons and it's just really difficult for me to do the whole task. I have to hire a person to do it for me and I have to pay her for it. And I'd like to do it on my own, if I could," Harper says.

Making life easier is all part of a university program called the Impact Project. Students from biology, engineering, medicine and occupational therapy have come together to create devices for clients living with health or mobility challenges. Now in its fifth year, the Impact Project has helped people with rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, cerebral palsy and dementia.

Tasks important to independence

Biology professor Lovaye Kajiura says that over the years, students have designed objects for simple but critical tasks.

"The students have been able to make devices that have helped people change the gears in their car, tie their shoes, button up their shirts," she says. "The students realize really early on in their career that they could make a difference."

The project is more than just an academic exercise.

Bill Harvey puts his laundry into a dryer

Bill Harvey puts his laundry into a dryer. (Marcy Cuttler/CBC)

"We definitely have been approached by some established companies in Canada. They're very interested in the types of ideas and devices created by the students," Kajiura says.

Over the fall, 1,100 students were divided into teams and given the task of developing a gadget for one of the following three problems:

  • Opening a door.
  • Eating comfortably at a dining room table while in a wheelchair.
  • Turning on a washer and dryer.

Their parameters were simple: The device couldn't cost more than $100, the project had to be done in between all their other school work, and it should give their clients as much independence as possible.

The goal, says engineering professor Robert Fleisig, is to enhance skills that many of his students themselves may take for granted.

"You've got to ask the bigger, more integrative questions: does it actually create value, does it actually meet needs? And that's not an engineering question, that's not a technical question, it's a human and emotional question."

In November, the teams showed their prototypes to a panel of peers. Most of the devices were created through pipes, wires and ingenious purchases at the dollar store. The students were asked questions about cost, the materials they used and whether their contraptions can actually perform the task.  

McMaster Engineering showcase

The winners of McMaster University's program, called the Impact Project, were announced earlier this month. (McMaster University)

"Getting to help somebody in first year, that's a big impact," says student Manesh Patel.

From the more than 200 teams, 10 finalists were chosen. They assembled in December for a Dragon's Den-style presentation in front of a panel of judges, which included professors and staff from St. Peter's Residence at Chedoke, where Betty Harper and Bill Harvey live. Harper and Harvey were also in attendance.

Each team was given seven minutes to make their pitch and answer questions.

For Harper and Harvey, their interest piqued when the washer/dryer finalists took the stage. There were three teams with devices creatively named Phantom Arm, Cyclowash, and PULI (which stands for Pull Up Laundry Invention).

"What's the energy expenditure to run a full load of laundry?" asked one judge.

"We don't expect it to be too strenuous," replied a student.

Even Harper got into the action when looking at the Phantom Arm. "I think that's pretty interesting. I'd like to try it," she said.

'We had to take into account Betty's safety, we had to take into account all the factors of a washing machine, we had to put ourselves in the position of the user.' - McMaster student Andrew Warius

After the judges convened for a quick huddle, the winners were announced.

Phantom Arm shared top design with another device for dining room accessibility. The washer/dryer device is a long, adjustable, lightweight arm with hooks, pegs and bands that allow the user to open and close the lids, as well as push, pull or turn buttons. For the team who built it, it was an eye-opening experience.

"We had to take into account Betty's safety, we had to take into account all the factors of a washing machine, we had to put ourselves in the position of the user," said Andrew Warius.

It was equally eye-opening for Harvey.

"I should have stayed in school. I should have stayed and studied because I like this sort of thing."  

The winners don't get money. But they do get recognition — an important tool they can use in their resumés.

And Harper and Harvey were given the Phantom Arm to help them with their laundry.