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The Annual Skinner Box Rat Training Competition


John Banister-Marx

Type of Entry:

  • Class project

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity, group/cooperative learning

Target Audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Advanced Biology

Notes for teachers:
You will likely need to enlist the help of your wood shop teacher in order to get the Skinner boxes and accessories manufactured. Start early because they do take quite a bit of time to build. During the raising and training portions of the activity when students actually have rats, make sure that they change the bedding in the cages about once a week and always have the appropriate amounts of food and water for their rats. Perhaps grading students on the quality of the care they provide their rats would be helpful. Basically,this activity runs itself, but you will want to supplement your unit on animal behavior with videos, other short activities/labs, articles, etc. Keep a few extra rats of varying age on hand should a student's rat be uncooperative or unexpectedly die. Do not let any two rats "room" together in the same cage; pregnant rats are uncooperative and make poor trainees.

Required of students:
Students need to be proficient in the use of the balance and meter stick in order to monitor "vital statistics" of individual rats. Students should also have a basic introduction to animal behavior and operant conditioning so that they are aware of the need to closely monitor and reward rat behaviors that will lead to the desired results.

Preparation time needed:
This project requires significant material preparation in acquiring or making rat cages and the Skinner boxes. Once the material needs for the project are acquired or manufactured, there is little actual set-up time necessary. Please follow these links to see slide tutorial on how to manufacture your own Skinner Boxes and train your rat or to see a movie of Ruby the Rat after completing her training. Before getting started with the training of a live rat, let your students try their hand at training a virtual rat. "Sniffy the Virtual Rat" software can be downloaded for a free 30 day trial, and a simple operant conditioning training session might last about 6-15 minutes to successfully train the virtual rat to push a lever to get food. This rat even scratches and sniffs just like a real rat. A very realistic experience and a good way to prepare your students for the more elaborate training ahead. Find the software at this website: http://psychology.wadsworth.com/sn

Class time needed:
Approximately 30-40 minutes each week for the first 3-4 weeks when students are merely monitoring the growth of their rats and cleaning cages, and then 100-150 minutes each week for the next 4-6 weeks when they are actually training their rats. The initial monitoring period can take place during a unit other than animal behavior, but the actual training period should take place during an extended unit on behavior and, perhaps, the brain and nervous system.


This is an 8-9 week project in which students raise a rat from a time shortly after it is weaned, first bonding with the rat by monitoring its growth "vitals" and then training it to perform a series of tricks. Rats will take about 5 weeks to reach weaning stage, then rats can be issued to students for monitoring growth for the next 3-4 weeks (during another instructional unit). Then, once beginning the unit on animal behavior, students can begin the training process. Students should be allowed about 100-150 minutes of training and monitoring per week for about 4-6 weeks. As rats accomplish each successive step of the training, the date and time is recorded on a large poster board chart hanging in the classroom. Students enjoy looking at this chart to see whose rat is learning most rapidly. Students will have the greatest success if they fast their rat just a day prior to the beginning of training, and then give them only 50% of their typical daily intake in their food dishes in the cages. The other 50% is intended to be made up during the training sessions.

Training steps include

  1. Feeding from dish

  2. Feeding on command

  3. Touching or sniffing marble

  4. Pushing marble part way up ramp

  5. Pushing marble all the up the ramp and out the hole

  6. Touching or sniffing rod

  7. Pulling rod part way into box

  8. Pulling rod all the way into the box

  9. Touching or sniffing teeter-totter

  10. Pushing down slightly on teeter-totter

  11. Pushing down completely on teeter-totter

  12. Touching or sniffing hoop

  13. Stepping through lowered hoop

  14. Jumping through raised hoop.

  15. Completion of the 14 steps in 30 seconds or less

  16. Completion of the steps 1-14 20- seconds or less

  17. Completion of steps 1-14 in 10 seconds or less.

Students begin with Step 1, and when it is mastered they go to Step 2, and then the next Step, etc. The rat must perform the accumulated series. For example if the rat is now ready to receive the rod in Step 6, the rat would be expected to sniff or touch the rod, followed by what it has already mastered (pushing the marble up the ramp and out the hole) before it would be given its small food reward in the feeding dish. The double knock on the box, and the delivery of food always takes place at the end of the series. When the rat accomplishes all tasks in order, it will go like this: first jump through the raised hoop, push down completely on teeter-totter, pull rod completely into box, push marble up ramp and out hole, receipt of food reward.

Rats may be left in a lab area throughout the project, but many students will ask to take their rats home for monitoring and training. Taking rats home should be encouraged.

Should a student team's rat die, they get credit for what they have already accomplished in terms of the percent of the grade they had earned, but they will still be starting over with the training of a new rat.


What question does this activity help students to answer?: Can organisms lacking complex reasoning skills learn to preform a series of tasks? What techniques could be used to facilitate this learning? How does this type of behavior differ from other types of behavior that are important to any organism's survival?


Materials needed:

  • 1 Skinner box + accessories and 1 rat cage with feeding tray and water bottle per group of 2 students.

  • One laminated poster board of student team/rat accomplishments to post in classroom.

  • Fortified rat and mice chow, which can be found at any large or specialty pet supply store (in addition to student purchased sunflower seeds or other treat food to be used during the training sessions), non-aromatic wood shavings for rat cage bedding (cottonwood or aspen is the best.) Pine or fir is most common but does tend to slightly irritate some of the rats because of its high resin content).

  • Overhead markers.

CVHS BIOLOGY: Animal Behavior Unit

Name ______________________________________#__

RAT VITALS MONITORING LOG for month of ________.

The following log is to be used in conjunction with the Skinner Box training laboratory exercise. Monitor your rat on a daily basis. Before and during the actual training period, you will be required to care for your rat and take mass(g) and tail(cm) measurements. Fast your rat for 1 day prior to commencing training, then give your rat 50% of their typical daily intake. The other 50% is typically made up during training sessions when you provide rewards for your rats successes.This project will last 7-10 weeks; 3-4 weeks bonding time with your rat, then about 4-6 weeks of actual training time; averaging about 100-150 minutes of in-class training per week.

date mass of rat (g) mass of food currently in dish (g) mass of food eaten since last entry(g) average daily food consumption(g) new mass of food in bin (g) rat tail length (cm) additional comments

ANALYSIS: (Be sure to show all of your calculations.)

  1. How could you to determine the values of rat mass (g) and rat tail length (cm) in the data table above for the days you did not actually take a measurement?

  2. What % of food eaten seems to be converted to actual weight gain in the rat? Where does all that extra food mass go? How does this percent compare with an animal like a snake?

  3. How much did the rat grow in mass and tail length from the first day compared to the last day of the experiment? What % increase of each?

  4. What is the ratio of mass(g) to tail length(mm) on day 1, a day in the middle of the experiment, and the last day?

CVHS Biology: Animal Behavior Unit
Name __________________________ #___

LAB: Rat Operant Conditioning Training Log
Partner(s) ________________________

Operant Conditioning Training Log

In the space provided below, please make daily entries for what your rat accomplished or what (s)he might have done that was unusual, and what your strategies will be for the next training session. You may make several daily entries on this one log sheet before needing to get additional sheets. Each person in your team must keep their own hand-written copy of any observations made.

Rat Name _____________________        Team Name _________________________

Date     Observed behaviors/accomplishments                  Future Strategies

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

  1. Data/graph of rat growth (25%). Students plot the data collected for mass of the rat (g), daily food consumption (g) , and length of tail (cm) versus days. The mass of rat and daily mass of food consumed are plotted on the left vertical axis and the tail length is plotted on the right vertical axis. There are, then, three lines that reflect the data recorded for each group of measurements, and an appropriate legend to identify each. Some of the discussion questions on the activity page entitled Rat Vitals Monitoring Log require students to demonstrate an ability to infer data , determine proportions/ratios, and recognize metabolic patterns for thermoregulators like mammals. Note: I have snakes in my room that we feed about once every 7-14 days. Students note the lower food requirements of these animals versus their rats.

  2. The training log (25%) is a collection of observations and strategies that are recorded once the training sessions begin. During each training session students are to record special accomplishments or behavioral circumstances/conditions of their rat (i.e. "rat seems very sluggish today - - we noted that it has lost 6 grams of mass in the last 2-3 days" or " rat is very active, but spending a great deal of time cleaning after each food reward"), and note any ideas they have about how to make future training sessions more effective (i.e. " we will make the food reward size smaller to reduce the amount of time it takes the rat to feed, clean, and be ready for the next attempt at learning.")

  3. Level of accomplishment of rat at the end of the project as recorded on the laminated poster board classroom chart (50%). The 50% of the project grade that comes from the actual accomplishments of the rat during the rat training is broken down by the steps 1-17 that comprise the competition. If the rat feeds on command the grade would be a 60% . This is the minimum requirement for passing THIS PART of the project. For each additional step they receive 3%, so that if their rat completes all steps in the series in less than 10 seconds they would receive 60% + (3% x 15) =105% for this part of the projects total value. For example, students who are able to get their rat to complete through step 9 would receive 60% + (3% x 7 additional steps) = 81 percent. Having a small portion of extra credit (steps 16 and 17) for speedy rats seems to provide a huge additional incentive for perfecting a team's rat's technique.

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

Since the project uses only about 100-150 minutes of class time each week for monitoring and training the rat, the remaining time is used for activities related to the general topic of animal behavior. Some of the videos in the series "The Trials of Life" might be useful, dry labs on bird migration or bee communication are interesting and informative. An interesting lab would be to test memory of planaria when they have been trained to associate bright light with electric shock, cut up the organism into 3-4 pieces and allow each to regenerate, and then see the degree to which each regenerated fragment can "remember" past conditioning. I also have students design and paint the outside of their Skinner boxes to reflect the rat's name/abilities and the team's name and image.

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