Learning and Behavior (PSY 335), a course offered every fall semester in Kelly Hall’s mammalian research facility, provides an opportunity for undergraduate students to work directly with rats for an entire semester.
The class is a requirement for most psychology majors, but it frequently attracts interest from business, economics, and exercise and sports science majors as well due to its high applicability outside the realms of psychology.
The lecture portion of the course provides a foundation for the lab work, covering topics such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the biological constraints of learning.
In the lab, students get their own rats for an entire semester; they must care and work with the animals every weekday. When the class concludes, the rats are adopted out to students who complete an animal handling course.
Psychology and sociology double major, Natalie Anderson, was among those who initially felt intimidated.
“It’s a lot of responsibility … but it’s caring for a life so I always find time,” she said.
As the semester advances, students and their rats begin to branch out from basic associative learning to more specific and complex studies. This is a seemingly daunting task for most students at first.
Although the black and white-colored rats have nearly identical appearances, students' progress is largely dependent on the varying ability of their own rat.
For some students, weeks are spent shaping their rat's behavior just to achieve intermittent lever-pressing, while other highly achieving rats in the class have already been seen to press a lever over a thousand times in a mere twenty-minute time period.
“It definitely fosters student engagement … and pretty soon you start cheering for your rat as it begins to learn more and more,” said Josh Bradley, a psychology and economics double major.
Dr. Scott Cohn, the professor and creator of the course, acknowledges the transformation of students.
“Students begin to realize that their rats exhibit behavior [seen in the students’] own lives, which really increases [student] motivation,” he said.
The laboratory experience is what attracts most students to the course. In prior years when the lab used simulations rather than live animals, students had some issues with motivation, according to Cohn.
“It’s like night and day … there are few specialized environments like this for undergrads,” Cohn noted. “Students become so invested [in their rats] that many will continue their research into the spring semester as an independent study.”
“One of the things I love about our animal lab in Kelley is that it's the ‘greenest’ animal research facility in the world,” Cohn said.
The rats eat an all vegetarian diet and nest in shredded Aspen, instead of the standard cedar chips. This enables the lab to compost 100% of the animal waste.
“The amount of habitat and wildlife saved through waste diversion practices makes the lab a unique example of sustainability in the most unlikely of places,” Cohn said.
The course has a maximum occupancy of 15 students per semester, but since it is so popular, the department is looking at adding a spring class as well.
Everyone who takes the course says it takes commitment but is ultimately one of the most valuable and engaging experiences of their college careers.
Story and photos by Peter Noon