Xtreme Rat Challenge Celebrates 40th Year

Students cheer on their rats competing in the hurdles competition.
An NWU student talks her rat through the rope climb competition.
Mt. Prairierati — a culmination of the individual events — was added in honor of the 40th anniversary.
Psychology professor Marilyn Petro records an event while Marty Klein, founder of the rat event, looks on.
Winning rats win gold while their student trainers win good grades.

Over the past four decades, nearly 800 lab rats have walked, climbed and jumped their way to coveted gold medals at Nebraska Wesleyan University’s annual Xtreme Rat Challenge.

In November another group of NWU psychology students and their rats made history by competing in the 40th anniversity of one of the university's most popular academic events.  

The students persuaded their rodents to climb a rope, walk a tightrope, run hurdles, climb a wall and press a weighted lever — many of the same events performed for the past 40 years. This year’s event culminated with Mount Prairierati, a spinoff of an American Ninja Warrior-type obstacle course in which the rats climbed walls, across ropes, and moved down slides in a head-to-head competition.

Each fall students enrolled in the Basic Learning Principles course spend weeks in the classroom, studying behavioral learning theories. Class is accompanied by laboratory time when students apply their lessons to their rats. The course concludes with the Xtreme Rat Challenge. Winning rats are rewarded with gold medals and treats, while students are rewarded with good grades.

Psychology professor Marilyn Petro said she has tried new events over the past several years, including swimming, so the 40th anniversary seemed like an appropriate time to try something new.

“I’ve been wanting to do a warrior course for a long time,” Petro said of the new Mount Prairierati event.

In its 40 years, the event has been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Late Show With David Letterman, the History Channel, Discovery Channel and more. Former psychology professor Marty Klein started the event, calling it the “Rat Olympics.” In 2003 the United States Olympic Committee threatened a lawsuit against the university for use of the word “Olympics” and NWU responded with a national naming contest that resulted in Xtreme Rat Challenge.