Celebrating 35 Years, Rat Challenge Has Students and Rats Competing for Gold, Grub, and Grades

Nebraska Wesleyan University has been infested with rats for 35 years and rather than exterminating, the school is celebrating.

The 35th annual Xtreme Rat Challenge has been rescheduled for Thursday, December 10 at 2 p.m. in the Smith-Curtis Administration Building, located one block east of 50th Street and St. Paul Ave. in Lincoln. 

For the past three months, students enrolled in the “Basic Learning Principles” psychology class have trained their rats to run, jump and climb a variety of athletic obstacles. The competition’s events 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 serves as the final exam for the laboratory portion of the psychology class.

Students are required to spend a minimum of 75 minutes per week with their rat but most students surpass the requirement in an effort to create a trusting relationship with their rodent and inevitably teach them gold medal-winning athletic skills.

"I had no expectations coming into class," said sophomore Abe Smith. "But learning principles in class and then applying them to training the rat has been great."

The Xtreme Rat Challenge debuted in 1974. Since then, Nebraska Wesleyan students have trained hundreds of rats on the power of positive reinforcement. NWU Psychology Professor Marilyn Petro says it’s an effective and fun way for psychology students to apply what they learn.

"I hope that by participating in the challenge students recognize how they can change behavior by controlling an environment."

The event 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 threat 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.

A medal ceremony will conclude the December 10th event. The event will last approximately 90 minutes.