Breakfast with monkeys

(l-r) Dave Stevens, Ben Schulze, Esteban Saenz, Jessie Taylor

When JMU senior ISAT majors Dave Stevens (’12), Ben Schulze (’12) and Jessie Taylor (’12) flew to Costa Rica last August and again in December as part of their senior project, they learned  there is a big difference between creating and researching a project on paper and actually getting out in the field and doing it.

The three students, along with their professor, Dr. Karim Altaii, traveled to Costa Rica to perform an energy analysis on a resort called Hotel Punta Leona. Located in the southwestern province of Puntarenas, the hotel is a popular vacation destination in a very  biodiverse country that values its ecology. “For the resort,” Dave says, “sustainability efforts are just as important as potential economic savings.”

The students’ objective is to remotely monitor real-time energy consumption data from the U.S. via Internet-connection devices, which they installed. The devices allow them to monitor energy use by month, day, hour, minute and second for individual guest units at the resort. They also are able to monitor individual circuits to pinpoint consumption trends that might otherwise go unnoticed. From the data the students collect, they can recommend ways the resort can reduce energy use.

“As we planned for this project in the states,” Dave says, “everything was going to work out smoothly with no hitches. After we arrived, we soon learned that when working with a relatively busy resort, there are inherent obstacles.”

While installing energy monitoring devices, they had to coordinate their efforts with maintenance people, owners and guests checking in and out of rooms every few days. “One day we would install a device and we wouldn’t be able to access it for a few days until the room was unoccupied again.”

Because the resort was originally built as a temporary movie set, the wiring was very disorganized, which made identifying circuits to monitor a challenge. Adding to the challenge, they had to deal with frequent power outages, “brown outs” and the language barrier .

“I certainly wish I knew more Spanish,” Dave says. “We constantly relied on our “Tico” (word for Costa Rica natives). They were awesome and always put up with us asking ‘now what did that person say?'”

Joining the JMU students, three students from the University of Costa Rica, Tattiana Hernandez, Francisco Gamboa and Estaban Saenz were part of the team.

The students also encountered the unexpected. “The internet was down in our room, so we had to walk to the reception area to use their Internet. It was late and the the reception area is open to the outside since the weather is pretty moderate all year. Before I knew it, there was a family of raccoons snooping around us. They would come up to our feet and try to nudge or bite us.  I remember sitting there and laughing at the situation thinking, wow, wouldn’t have expected racoons to be an obstacle during this project.”

Along with the raccoons, they had breakfast with monkeys who would sneak out of the trees, sidle over to the open-air breakfast and help themselves to the students’ fare.

The ISAT team didn’t spend all their time in Costa Rica working. “The first weekend we were there we traveled to Limon, on the Caribbean side of the country. We stayed in a small coast resort called the Black Pearl. The beaches looked like set for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies,” Dave says.

Now back on campus, the team is monitoring and analyzing data. They are also designing a solar power system for the resort.

About his experience, Dave says, “I feel like my career goals have certainly been sharpened. It has been very interesting getting to work in a real professional setting and applying skill sets I’ve acquired through ISAT. I feel a lot more confident in tackling such projects in the future.”

And they can all say they’ve had breakfast with monkeys.

To learn more about JMU’s ISAT program, visit

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to Breakfast with monkeys

  1. grahammb says:

    Thanks for your comment! I’ll make sure that Dave, Ben, Jessie and Dr. Altaii get your message.
    Martha Graham


  2. Real world application is always more complex than academic models. The big lesson may have been the experience itself more than the experiment. On another note: I work as chief engineer at a large resort on the Big Island of Hawaii and am constantly looking for ways to reduce environmental impact, energy consumption, etc. I’d be very interested in the findings of the Costa Rica project. You can write me at if you would like to share some ideas. Mahalo. Dohn Chapman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: