Training For Gold and Grades: 39th Annual Xtreme Rat Challenge is Nov. 26

Black and white rodents with long pink tails have been spotted in the halls of Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Smith-Curtis Administration Building.

But the university’s doesn’t have a rodent problem.

The sightings are accompanied by sounds of clickers, shakers, and bells… the sounds of learning.

The University’s 39th annual Xtreme Rat Challenge (XRC) will be held Tuesday, November 26 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the Smith-Curtis Administration Building, located two blocks east of 50th Street and St. Paul Ave.

Students enrolled in the psychology course “Basic Learning Principles” have spent the fall semester training rats for one of the university’s most popular academic events. Students train their rats to run, jump, and climb a variety of athletic obstacles. This year’s competition will include hurdles, rope climb, tightrope walk, long jump, wall climb, and lever press. Winning rats are rewarded with gold medals and treats, while students are rewarded with a good grade since the event is part of their final exam.

Dr. Marilyn Petro, associate professor of psychology, teaches the class every fall semester.

“Each year is unique as the students and the rats they train are all new to the class,” she said. “As the XRC gets closer, anxiety increases.”

The purpose of the class is to learn about the power of positive reinforcement. Students apply their classroom lessons to the rat lab where they use sounds and treats to train their rodents.

The Xtreme Rat Challenge was originally called the “Rat Olympics” until 2003 when the United States Olympic Committee threatened a lawsuit against Nebraska Wesleyan for using the word “Olympics.” The lawsuit drew the attention of Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the Late Show With David Letterman. In recent years, the event has been featured on the Discovery Channel, Modern Marvels, and National Public Radio.

The Xtreme Rat Challenge is free and open to the public. 

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For 39 years, students have trained their lab rats for athletic events including the rope climb.
Psychology students cheer on their rats during the hurdles competition.
Students spend nearly 3 months applying their classroom lessons to their rat training.
Winning rats receive medals and treats while students receive grades for their training.