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Pyschology students motivate their rats

By Andrew De Young

Kelly Vander Pol and Seth Shannon are trying to learn what clues rats use to navigate a maze.  Dr. Danny Hitchcock looks on.

Kelly Vander Pol and Seth Shannon are trying to learn what clues rats use to navigate a maze. Dr. Danny Hitchcock looks on.

This November, the psychology department held their fifth annual Rat Olimpicks. Started in 1996 by then-professor Paul Moes, Rat Olimpicks are a student project connected with Psychology 302, Learning: Theory and Applications.

“We look at different theories of how people learn,” says Dr. Danny Hitchcock, who now heads up the class. “We apply these theories to animals to discern the fundamentals of learning.”

The Rat Olimpicks are an exercise in operant conditioning, a method developed by B.F. Skinner. Hitchcock explains the theory in one simple phrase: “Rewards change behavior.” Students trained their rats for different “events” by rewarding good performance with positive reinforcement and discouraging bad performance with negative reinforcement.

“At the beginning I didn’t want to punish my rat for misbehavior,” says senior Karissa Stel, whose rat, Tiger, got third place on the long jump. “Eventually I realized that it wasn’t going to work, so I started giving him negative reinforcement, and that’s when Tiger really started to perform.”

The competitive nature of the event, says Hitchcock, helps his students to become more involved in what they are learning. Students usually name their rats and are highly motivated to win events and set new “world records” in order to receive extra points for the class. And the outside community enjoys Rat Olimpicks, too. This year, over seventy people flocked into classroom S101 to enjoy Professor Sherri Lantinga’s “rat cookies” and watch the event’s live feed, while Hitchcock livened things up by walking around with a microphone and pretending to be a sportscaster.

But ultimately, the event’s more than just good fun. The main purpose of the class, says Hitchcock, is to study the way that God has created humans as well as animals.

“Some people look at the parallels between humans and animals and see it as evidence of evolution,” says Hitchcock. “I just say, look at this incredible design, this system of rewards and consequences that God has set up!”