Hero rats: Trained to detect landmines and tuberculosis

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At the 2016 Stanford Psych One Conference, Linda Woolf (Webster University) suggested that during the Intro Psych learning chapter we talk about Hero Rats. This is a very nice way to help students see an example of the contributions psychological science is making to promote human rights around the world.

After covering operant conditioning, show Bart Weetjens 12-minute 2010 TED talk, How I Taught Rats to Sniff Out Land Mines (below). (Why rats, other than they are easy and cheap to train? They are too light to set off the mines.) In the second half of his talk, Weetjens discusses his new work on training rats to detect tuberculosis.

Video Link : 1669

Alternatively, show students this 11-minute 2007 Frontline segment on Hero Rats. Before you play it, inform students that there is an error in the video. Can they identify it? [In the video, the conditioning is called classical/Pavlovian, but it's actually operant. The rats are clicker-trained. The rats learn that when they hear a click, they can run to a location, such as back to their trainer, to get a tasty treat. The click is a discriminative stimulus - "that sound is my cue to go get a snack".]

This website provides a nice written explanation of the process used to train the rats.

Is your class, psych club, or honor society looking for a project? Consider raising funds to support Weetjeens organization, Apopo.

Besides, Gambian (aka African) pouched rats are pretty darn cute. Even if (or because) their bodies can be a foot and a half long with a tail that matches their body length.

(Photo source: Gambian pouched rat - Wikipedia)

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.