When Meihuan Yu was in Grade 10 researching a history project, she was captivated by the story of a Syrian swim instructor teaching amputee children how to swim and cope with the trauma of war.

Yu found Abdulvahed Naker’s work moving. “There are children who have had their arms amputated but in that swim class, they were able to develop extreme ability with their feet and lower limbs to be able to swim and enjoy a new sport — overcoming their challenges,” she said.

Naker’s work inspired Yu to see how she might be able to assist people with disabilities. During her 16th summer, Yu created a foot-operated mouse for people with upper limb disabilities that she calls COAST, short for computer operating assistance system technology. “It’s a shoe-pad mouse that allows people with upper limb disabilities to be able to access computer technology with their feet,” said Yu.

Her creation won sixteen-year-old Yu the best young inventor award at the International Invention Innovation Competition in Canada.

After coming up with the “crazy,” idea to “make a technology that can use my passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the same agility these children have for their feet to see if it can benefit the disabled community...” Yu said she took the idea to her graduate student colleagues, at STEM Fellowships where she is a team lead, wondering if it was possible.

She was pointed to the University of Waterloo’s Additive Manufacturing Summer Program where she applied and got in. Her project was a computer mouse because she thought it might be “something simple” that could make computer technology more accessible.

Yu shadowed professors to learn the basic math, science and mechanical engineering background needed to make such a creation.

The biggest challenge was ensuring the invention would be cost-efficient — she wanted it to be accessible and affordable for people in the future.

She recalls the first prototype she made out of card stock. “I remember the aha moment when I put together the 3D model. I plugged it into the computer and it worked. Every member of my family tried it out. It’s funny because they were kind of surprised since it was my first creation, but then they encouraged me.”

Meihuan Yu,17, created a foot-operated mouse for people with upper limb disabilities that she calls COAST, short for computer operating assistance system technology, which won her a best young inventor award.
A diagram of Meihuan Yu's invention, computer operating assistance system technology (COAST). Photo provided by Meihuan Yu

Yu’s father found the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) scholarship for women in science and technology and “he encouraged me to try my luck and see if I could win the scholarship program,” she said.

Yu entered and won. “Winning from such a big organization that focuses on women and technology, I was so happy — not only because I won something that I never thought was possible but that a girl in STEM was able to realize her dreams into reality,” she said.

Also the founder of the non-profit Canadian Young Investors society, teaching financial literacy to students and remote schools across Canada, Yu hopes to combine her passions and learn more about technology and entrepreneurship — even starting her own tax startup once she’s older.

Working with other young leaders, Yu wants to build a platform for youth to see what kind of change could be made using their passions.

“I want to be able to somehow get my story out there so that other girls in STEM can realize that their dreams are achievable. I want to create a future where there are more people who look like me, women of colour in STEM fields,” Yu said.

Yu often felt like she was having impostor syndrome while in school clubs were dominated by males, but she looked towards the women she met at STEM Fellowship.

“There were young immigrant mothers doing secondary education in science, female graduate students having the craziest, best project ideas ever that were so inspiring.”

With a dream to partner with a shoe company and integrate her invention, Yu hopes her project can make an impact on the local disabled community. “I've been reaching out to charities and organizations that focus and help disabled children, pitching my invention to see if it can help in some way,” she said.

To 16-year-olds that are in Yu’s situation, she encourages them to find a community where they have a support system — no matter the project.

“Don’t give up on a project because people say it is impossible. Just because you stay up late at night trying to figure out a specific tiny calculation because your first, second and third prototype went wrong, just keep going and find yourself a good support system.

“As a high school student, you think your limits are so much closer than they really are,” Yu said.

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Good news stories are what we need to at least balance out the bad news. Inspiring story because she COULD do it and then did.

Girl,or woman?

Wow! So impressive!