Introduction to Psychology is the only official prerequisite for Psych 160, but students who sign up for Spencer Morrison’s class at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln know that there’s another unwritten requirement: an interest in seeing rats perform bold athletic feats. Each student coaches an albino rodent, helping the animal train for an event once known as the Rat Olympics. (After the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened a lawsuit against the university, the event was renamed the Xtreme Rat Challenge.)
Morrison’s project has a serious motivation: to teach students about the psychological underpinnings of learned behavior. Working with live animals forces students to apply principles learned in the classroom in ingenious ways, he says. Each one strives to prepare a small rat for big challenges—standing long jump, tightrope walk, rope climb, weight lifting, and track hurdles. The rat challenge also taps into the psychology of the students themselves, Morrison says: A competitive event tends to make everyone work harder.