Dr. Hill and students
Students turn rodents into (basketball) team players

By Gary Glancy
gary.glancy@shj.com
Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rat Basketball / Photo by Alex Hicks Jr./Spartanburg Herald-Journal

No multi-million-dollar contracts. No lucrative endorsement deals. No international fame.

For a dozen rats in Alliston Reid's behavior analysis psychology class at Wofford College, it was all about the love of the game.

And treats, of course.

While Benjamin Johnson Arena may have been rockin' Monday night for the men's basketball conference home opener against Appalachian State, a packed McMillan Theater next door had its own electricity earlier in the day with the thoroughly unique "Hoop-Rat Classic."

Throughout this semester, Reid's students in the freshman introductory course have been working in teams of two to individually train each of the 12 rats to compete one-on-one in a 2-by-1-foot makeshift hoops court created to scale by Reid.

To score, the rats pick up a small ceramic ball with their paws or -- in the case of the advanced ones -- their teeth, and dunk it through a basket. The incentive is a tasty food pellet; the psychological basis is classic positive reinforcement.

"The reason (for doing this) is, first, it's fun for the students, and second, the series of behaviors is the exact same techniques you would use to train children as parents, or if you're a coach training athletes," said Reid, who added the rats also enjoyed and looked forward to playing. "The behavioral principles for learning are exactly the same."

After weeding out five of the weaker "players" last week, the top seven advanced to Monday's single-elimination tournament, where some displayed Michael Jordan-esque efficiency.

"We were pretty amazed by it," said student Tarah Taylor, from Orange County, Calif. "We didn't think the rats would perform as well as they did. It's been a fun experience for us and we learned a lot."

This was the second time Reid has conducted the experiment. The first was 2002, and back then, it garnered national media attention. Reid tried it again this spring with his new behavior analysis course, but the rats weren't quite ready for prime time.

"(It's a) chain of many, many, many different behaviors that the rat has to learn," Reid said, "and almost none of them are natural for a rat."

Reid said this semester he provided more structure to his students to help them take the rats through the 50 different steps required to turn them into furry Kobe Bryants. The students worked seven days a week with the rats, and even became emotionally attached to them.

The winner was Pandora, a slender albino trained by Kaitlyn Rebollar and Glenn Hope, who plans to purchase an elaborate, seven-story rat cage from the Internet and adopt the girl after next semester. According to Rebollar, the rat never once bit her through all the coaching.

"I've really enjoyed this," she said as Pandora scurried along her outstretched arm. "I consider her a personal pet and friend from spending so much time training her."