May 27, 2010
Writer: Writer: Mark Beck

The Brigham Young University-Idaho Department of Psychology will host its annual "Rat Olympics" June 3 at 11:30 a.m. in the Thomas E. Ricks Building. The event will feature rats trained by psychology students competing in various obstacle courses, jumps and tricks.

"The purpose of the Rat Olympics is to help students understand the principles of behavioral learning and gain insight that can't be gained from a textbook," said instructor Kimberly Andersen.

Andersen incorporated the study of animals into her teaching several years ago. "We do a similar competition involving chickens. In theory, anything an organism is physically capable of doing, we can teach it do," she said.

An observation the students have made, Andersen said, is that similar to humans, animals are motivated by rewards. "Behavior is a function of consequences," she said. "We've seen that the animals' performance is improved when they are rewarded with treats and other incentives.

In addition to preparation for future careers, Andersen said the activity prepares the students for parenthood. "Anyone who is going to be a parent should train a rat first," she said. "This activity really stretches the students, just like training a child does."