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She shoots! She scores! Rat Basketball?

She has the hoop in sight, she runs, she shoots she scores! The basketball flies through the hoop and so does the small furry player, one of the stars of Rat Basketball at The Science Museum of Virginia. Amazing basketball skills are not something rats are born with, so how does Laura Kramer, the Chief Rat Wrangler, and her team of trainers use science to get these small basketball players to compete in the game?

Watch the video to learn about the science of rat basketball.

“We use operant conditioning, a form of behavior modification attributed to the psychologist B.F. Skinner. This type of conditioning is based on the consequences of your actions,” explains Kramer. “For example, when one of the rats gives me the response I am looking for, such as picking up the ball, the rat receives a reward in the form of an edible treat. This is called positive reinforcement. If the rat does not give me the correct response, she does not receive a treat. This is called punishment.”

In much the same way that parents try to teach their children how to behave, Kramer shapes the rats behavior by reinforcing their positive responses and not rewarding their negative ones. To get a rat to put the ball through the hoop they must go through a 3 to 4 month process of shaping--learning complex behaviors by doing it in small steps. First, the rat learns to touch and explore the ball. Kramer hits a buzzer when they are successful and then gives the rat a treat. The next step is to get the rat to pick up the ball with their teeth and carry it around, first to move it a few inches and then down the court. If the rat gets it right, they will hear the buzzer and receive something to eat. In another stage of the shaping process, a platform is added so the rat can learn how to get the ball in the hoop. The platform is lowered overtime and eventually the platform is taken away. In 3 to 4 months, the rats are trained to play with another rat and to compete in rat basketball. “It’s relatively easy to get a rat to play basketball, it’s a bit harder to get them to cooperate. Once the rats have learned enough to play one-on-one with another rat, the games can get quite competitive. It’s fun to cheer for your favorite,” shares Kramer.

This type of shaping and operant conditioning is used every day to train humans and animals. From parents training their children to professionals training bomb sniffing dogs – it takes understanding science to make things happen. Go and check out Rat Basketball at The Science Museum of Virginia, it will be a treat!

To see a Rat Basketball Game or to find out more visit The Science Museum of Virginia.

Check out this Science Bytes PBS Video “Whisker Wonders” to learn more about how rat whiskers, a rat’s primary sensor of touch, can teach us about our own sense of touch and our brain.