Thursday, June 5, 2014

An amazing way to learn using rats in psychology class

Today's guest post is by Maria Vita of Penn Manor High School in Millersville, PA. Take it away, Maria!

At Penn Manor High School, students in regular psychology and Advanced Placement Psychology conduct lab experiments using live rats.  Yep, you read that correctly: LIVING RODENTS!  After the 10-15 day project, students create Youtube videos demonstrating concepts learned.  Some short, but effective videos from this year are Agnes (2014), Lacey (2014) and Oz (2014).

During the project, students apply content standards from the APA/TOPSS standards in high school psychology, including:

Ethical issues in research with human and non-human animals
Principles of classical conditioning
Principles of operant conditioning

Students ensure their three-week-old rat’s health by weighing it on an electronic baby scale.  If rats lose more than 5-10% of their total weight, it can be an indicator of illness.

Working in teams of two to three, the students name and “adopt” their rat: Each group is encouraged to fill their rat’s cage with enriching items like PVC tubes and empty tissue boxes. Our classroom can have anywhere from 12 to 26 rats (and cages) at a time! 

In AP Psychology, students are encouraged to use a “clicker” to classically condition their rat.  Ultimately, the “clicker” sound excites the rats because they associate it with food.  Students apply Ivan Pavlov’s trace conditioning by clicking first (CS), pausing, and then presenting the rat with food (UCS). For an example, see these student-made videos on Youtube: the rat Anastasia’s video (2011) or Ellie the rat (2010).

Among their many feats, rats acquire bar-pressing behavior in an operant chamber.  They also learn to navigate a maze and obstacle course. The student-made videos published on YouTube demonstrate the successes of the rats, but also students’ understanding of target vocabulary.  In 2010, for example, students applied the term shaping by getting their rat Nessy to push a marble down two ramps, then eight ramps, then seventeen ramps (see images or YouTube video @ 40 seconds).  

To see more student and rat videos, go to There is a project description on this link for those interested in training their own rats.

Thanks for sharing this, Maria!
--posted by Steve


Anonymous said...

Ms. Vita is such an amazing teacher! This project was so much fun and also a good way to not only learn the vocab but apply the concepts to our own rat's training! Thanks for the awesome year Ms. Vita!

-2013-2104 AP Psych Student

Anonymous said...

A year later and I still have my rat from Ms. Vita's class! This will always be my favorite lesson and experience from high school. Ms Vita has been an outstanding teacher and inspiration to all students!

- Former AP Psych Student

Anonymous said...

Ethical Considerations during experiments is a topic very important to psychological research. Having live rats in a classroom is a great idea because two concepts are taught. Ethical consideration being one of them and behaviorism being the second. Maze learning has always been a phenomena to many psychologist and being able to observe first hand might produce deeper thinking among the students.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering if you had a contract with the students to keep their rats. I would like to introduce this in my classroom but don't want to bring home 15 rats when the project is completed. How did you handle this?

Maria Vita said...

Thanks for your comment. Because students are working in groups of 2-3, there is typically someone in the group who wants to keep the rat. I did not require students to commit to this at the beginning of the project. I do have a parent-consent form that notifies parents of the project, but it is not a requirement that a particular student take the rat as a pet. Usually no more than 2-3 groups are unable to keep their rat and in these unusual cases, there may be families willing to adopt 2 rats (same gender) or other elementary classes, etc. that are willing to adopt. I never bring home rats personally and we have always found a good home for each rat. (I learned that pet stores are not a good option as rats often become feeders to snakes). Hope this helps and please feel free to email me with any other questions:

Also, you can see the parent form on my wiki page in the project description

mariavita said...

UPDATE: Here are the APA guidelines for research with non-human subjects. A great way to plan and consider important aspects of a project using live animals. The American Psychological Association has established guidelines for animal ethics in grades K-12.

mariavita said...

Here are the APA Guidelines for research with non-human subjects: The American Psychological Association has established guidelines for animal ethics in grades K-12.