NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering is not just any engineering school. It’s one with a mission. Beyond academics, admissions officers are always looking out for students who are a good cultural fit. “We want to make sure that students understand the experience they would have here. We are looking for people who are interested in innovation and entrepreneurship, but who also want to contribute to the greater good,” explains Cindy Lewis, Associate Director for Undergraduate Recruitment.
VR as a tool for recruitment and admissions
To this end, the Enrollment Management team was looking for a creative way to give admitted students a glimpse of campus life before they arrived in Brooklyn. Around the same time, Elizabeth Ensweiler, now Tandon’s Senior Director of Graduate Enrollment and Graduate Admissions, happened to receive a Google Cardboard in the mail. Lewis recalls, “She thought it was the coolest thing ever and told her colleagues, ‘We need to figure out a way to integrate this into our recruitment.’”
Ensweiler approached Lewis and Krysta Battersby, Academic Administrator for the Department of Technology, Culture and Society to bring a VR into the admissions process. They found a technical lead for the program in Mark Skwarek, Lecturer of Integrated Digital Media. Battersby shares, “Mark was natural fit as he was already using VR both inside and outside the classroom.”
Tandon’s first VR app: Tandon Vision
With some brainstorming, Lewis, Battersby, and Skwarek came up with the idea to create a VR app that would highlight unique aspects of the school to admitted students. The end product, Tandon Vision, would take students on a virtual trip to Mars with a robot built by one of the school’s robotics clubs.
Skwarek’s students were a vital part of making Tandon Vision a reality. Skwarek explains, “I act as a supervisor, helping students with technical aspects they may not have mastered yet. I have the students create a draft, and then I review with them to make any updates. I also make sure that the project stays on track and meets the agreed upon specs.”
Lewis shares how the app works, noting: “The app takes students from Brooklyn, past the moon, toward the sun, and then eventually to Mars where they can view actual satellite imagery from the Curiosity Rover.” Tandon Vision is narrated by Industry Professor of General Engineering Gunter Georgi who formerly worked on NASA’s Apollo Lunar Module, and who also leads a required course for first-year students. Lewis continues, “The app is a great way to let students know about our Integrated Digital Media program, our robotics club, and also to introduce them to Professor Georgi whom they’ll meet in their first months on campus.”
Tandon Vision was first shared with admitted students for the class of 2020. Shortly after receiving their acceptance emails, students also received a package in the mail with a Tandon-branded Google Cardboard with instructions on how to download the app. “The Cardboards are sent as a way to welcome students to campus, to explain how faculty and students work with VR, and to showcase the different types of research we do here,” Lewis says.
Battersby continues, “Our VR apps let students experience part of the school that they may not see during a tour or a short visit. It really gives them a sense of what it’s like to be a student at Tandon.”
More VR apps directed at female recruitment
Based on positive feedback on Tandon Vision from incoming students, current students, and faculty, Lewis, Battersby, and Skwarek were asked to create a second VR app—and then a third. This time, they were able to be more specific with their goals, and they chose to focus on attracting more women to the school.
To do this, they designed the second VR app, Tandon Research Lab, around the research of a female mechanical engineer. And for their third app, Tandon Makerspace, they chose to focus on Tandon’s fully-equipped fabrication lab, which tended to have higher usage among male students. “We wanted to introduce equipment like our 3D printers and laser cutters to students before they arrived on campus to lower the access barrier. We wanted all students—especially women—to feel comfortable with the space and equipment.”
Lewis shares, “We intentionally added subtle elements to these apps such as women in the labs, a female student voiceover, and female faculty members to help women feel comfortable with our school. We thought that giving them those female images before even stepping on campus would be powerful.”
Virtual reality a real success for Tandon’s recruitment
The team’s effort to increase women’s interest in the program is working. In 2017, 45% of admitted students and 40% of enrolled freshmen were women. Between 2017 and 2018, Tandon also saw a 14% jump in women’s applications and women made up 49% of admitted students. (Nationally, women earned just under 21% of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2016.)
As to why the school finds VR such a great recruiting tool for women in particular, it’s a matter of the past—and the future. Battersby explains, “With chemistry, physics, any of the other more established engineering fields, when you look back in the textbooks or read about past groundbreaking discoveries—it’s more than likely to be about men—or at least credited to men. And what's great about VR is that it gives us a new medium for women to truly own their story."
VR and more are in Tandon’s future
The school is also brimming with other future plans for VR and related technologies. They're in the process of creating an AR app, they're partnering with the City of New York on a VR accelerator, and they’re also looking to use Tour Creator to allow students to create tours their ten favorite spots on campus.
Battersby shares, “Right now we're telling a lot of the faculty story and we're just sharing some of the student story. What we really want is for our students to tell us what they think about being here at Tandon. What do they like? What did they not expect? We're encouraging our students to use Tour Creator to create tours about their major, a day in the life, or their internships. For us, that’s really exciting.”