Xtreme Rat Challenge: Psychology Event Selects a Different Breed of Athletes

NWU student Terry Mowry trains his rat for the upcoming Xtreme Rat Challenge.
A rat completes the rope climb event at the 2009 competition.
NWU students cheer on the rats competing in the hurdles event at the 2009 XRC event.
Rats competing in this year's event will have a different look: they are brown and white and can see.

The halls of Nebraska Wesleyan’s Smith-Curtis Administration Building are once again rat infested. But rather than exterminate, the university will celebrate.

Students enrolled in the psychology course “Basic Learning Principles” have spent the fall semester training lab rats for one of the school’s most unique events, the Xtreme Rat Challenge. The Challenge will be held Tuesday, December 7 at 4 p.m. in Great Hall of the Smith-Curtis Administration Building.

Students have trained their rats to run, jump and climb in 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 the student trainers are rewarded with a good grade since the event serves as a final exam for the laboratory portion of their course.

In it’s 36th year, the event is taking a new twist. Students are using a different rat breed called Long Evans Hooded Rat. Rats used for the past 35 years were albino and blind. Rats trained for this year’s event are white with brown spots and can see.

But their ability to see has not yet directly impacted their training, said psychology professor Marilyn Petro.

“Rats are dominated by hearing and smell,” said Petro. “They tend to ignore visuals.”

Petro said she wanted to use a different breed to see if performance levels differed from albino rats. For example, the all-time record in the long jump is 48.5 inches; the all-time record for the 5-foot rope climb is 3.33 seconds, and the all-time record for the 5-yard hurdles is 3.78 seconds.

Will those records be shattered this year?

“Rats are able to adapt to their world quickly so I have not noticed a great difference yet between the two breeds,” said Petro. “It will be fun to look at the end results.”

The purpose for the class is to learn about the power of positive reinforcement. In this case, students create a trigger, which prompts a response. If the response is accurate, the rat is rewarded.

Elementary education major Brad Swank, a sophomore from Shenandoah, Iowa, hopes to eventually apply what he is learning in the rat lab to a classroom of children.

“I enrolled in the course to better understand kids by looking at behavior and to learn about modifying behavior,” said Swank.

Swank has trained his rat, Shelly, to respond to a pen clicker. He rewards her with Coco Puffs when she finishes the tightrope walk, rope climb and wall climb events.

Junior Meghan Poulas of Columbus uses a shaker to train her rat, Madi. Her rat will compete in the lever press, long jump and rope climb events.

“I was interested in the class because I thought it would be fun to work with the rats and really apply what we are learning in the classroom,” she said.

Students are required to train their rats for 75 minutes each week, but most spend significantly more time with their animals, said Petro.

When the event is over the rats are adopted by their student trainers or by local schools. Both Poulas and Swank hope to keep their rats.

“I just have to convince my mom,” said Poulas.

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 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.