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Natasha Smith and Alex Guest use technology to improve academic advising

July 20, 2016

Natasha Smith and Alex Guest
Natasha Smith and Alex Guest

Virginia Tech employees Natasha Smith and Alex Guest constantly strive to leverage technology in new ways to improve the daily operations of the Department of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering, often leading to contributions at the university level.

Smith and Guest serve the Department of Engineering Education and its 2,400 undergraduate students as the director of enrollment management and systems manager respectively.

In recognition of their exemplary teamwork, Smith and Guest are two of six Virginia Tech employees nominated in 2016 to represent the university in the statewide Governor’s Award program. They were nominated in the teamwork award category. The winners were announced in May.

During the past four years, the duo has collaborated on multiple projects that have introduced technology into the undergraduate academic advising process. Their innovative solutions have resulted in increased efficiency and accuracy and a reduction in time, paper, and costs.

The team is admired by their colleagues for their creative problem solving and innovative solutions that enhance the daily operations of the department, college, and university.

“Natasha Smith and Alex Guest have done truly phenomenal work in taking our departmental operations to a whole new level,” said Donna Riley, the interim department head of engineering education in the College of Engineering. “Their innovations have benefited staff and faculty and the development of our well-rounded students, not only in engineering education, but also the college and the university. We are deeply gratified by this well-deserved recognition by the state for their efforts, which consistently go above and beyond." 

Three of the team’s most notable projects having included the College of Engineering Change of Major Application, the Queue Scheduling System, and PDF-Renamer.

In 2012, the College of Engineering adopted an enrollment management plan, creating a need for increased efficiency when processing applications for change of majors. Other tools initially utilized had too many limitations and were ultimately unsuccessful.

Smith and Guest worked together to develop a customized electronic application that better suited the College of Engineering’s needs. Their application, which allows data verification to be enabled, has increased the accuracy of the applications and, therefore, has increased processing efficiency as well.

Since its adoption in 2013, more than 10,000 applications have been received and processed. Due to the application system’s success, the university has made strides toward converting the entire university to a three-times-per-year application process for change of majors, and a university-wide application system will be launched in August.

Smith and Guest have also worked together to solve another problem facing the department, the scheduling of undergraduate student visits with academic advisors.

At peak times during each semester, students would line the hallways waiting to see an advisor.  As soon as one student’s meeting was finished, the next meeting would begin, leaving advisors with limited time to take notes or prepare for the next student.

To mitigate the issue, Smith and Guest collaborated to create a queue system where students could sign in at one location and wait to be called. Students now proceed to a reserved conference room where they are instructed to sign in through a touchscreen monitor, which automatically places them in their advisor’s queue.

Advisors are able to see a listing of students and their wait time while remaining in their office. When advisors are ready, they press the call button next to the student’s name, and an announcement is made in the conference room letting the student know the advisor is ready to meet.

Smith and Guest’s system allows students to wait in a less chaotic area that is conducive for studying, while enabling the advisors to better manage their meeting. This system also provides valuable data that can be analyzed to better inform departmental decision-making with respect to advising and resource allocation.

Most recently, the team joined forces once again after Smith saw a need for a way to do bulk uploads to the university’s document management system, which is used to electronically store advising documents.

Unable to find an already-existing product that could do what was needed, Smith collaborated with Guest to create a program that would take one large document containing multiple pages for many students and deconstruct it into individual documents that are then saved with each student’s ID number and the document type.

They then worked with the document management team to map the Banner Document Management System to the documents and automatically index each file into the system. This results in the ability to save an unlimited number of documents into the system in minutes, avoiding countless hours of indexing on an individual level.

This program has parsed and indexed more than 5,000 documents for the College of Engineering since its creation and is being discussed for university-wide implementation.

Written by Katie Huger, employee communications manager.

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