WHEELING, WV, Dec. 15, 2010 — Wheeling Jesuit University psychology students in the learning laboratory class took on a fishy project this fall as they designed a project with goldfish.
"The students designed a demonstration of operant and classical conditioning in goldfish as their laboratory project," said professor Dr. Debra Hull, who has been a member of the WJU Psychology Department for 29 years.
"The success that the psychology students enjoyed is a result of their effective training methods and ongoing efforts."
Hull was pleased with the way the students embraced this project and made it work. Fish learned target responding, and to swim through tunnels and hoops, play soccer and respond to the students as they worked with them and trained them to respond to stimuli.
The project took place over nine weeks and involved 15 psychology students interacting with eight fish in four large fish tanks, complete with accessories like a tiny soccer field, a tunnel and feeding apparatus.
It was the first time the Wheeling Jesuit psychology lab took on goldfish. Rats are more commonly used for these types of experiments, according to Hull.
But the goldfish worked so well that the fish lab may become a standard part of the psychology lab (Rumor is professor Hull doesn't like rats.)
"We saw that learning principles apply across the board," said Mike Seals, a senior from Wheeling, who plans to go into physical therapy as a post-graduate career. "You think goldfish are dumb but in reality, they remember what they are taught for maybe three months or so. The fish have better memories than most people think." (From left, WJU students Joan Cotter, Sherri Mae Howard, Mark Sappington and Mike Seals work in the Fish Lab.)
Principles learned in the fish laboratory have many human applications. According to professor Hull, students will use what they learned in the fish lab in many different careers.
For example, senior Stefanie Mertz, of Bethel Park, Pa., is planning on becoming a counselor after graduation. "I've learned patience with these fish. What I wanted isn't always what the fish will do," she said. "Which is good experience for future work with clients."
"Each fish is different," added senior Andrew Groves, a Wheeling resident. "Steph and I both had a problem with one fish and ended up learning that you can't always make a fish learn. So we had to change our method."
"It's like the definition for insanity, you keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, we learned that with the fish," added Mertz.
Another important part of a lab project like this, according to Dr. Hull is that it forces students to observe fish prior to training in order to see their natural tendency, thus increasing their powers of observation. Plus, students got to use their own natural skills to complete the project. Some students were better at background research, others at data collection and presentation, and others at fish. Everyone can excel with the hands-on learning of a lab, it seems. (Above are Stefanie Mertz, Mike Seals, Dr. Debra Hull and Andrew Groves.)
Psychology majors at Wheeling Jesuit take at least three lab-based courses. In each course, students complete original research, contributing to our knowledge base in psychology. Many go on to present their results to the scientific community in national and even international conferences.
"It is truly unusual for so many students to have such sophisticated research experience as undergraduates (regardless of major) get at Wheeling Jesuit," said Hull.
Besides the new fish lab, there are computer laboratories, and special purpose labs for student-research work including: body image, chemical senses, health psychophysiology, athletic performance, media, sleep performance, pain psychophysics, video game, driving simulation and cognitive neuroscience.
Located on the second floor of Donahue Hall, the psychology department is a busy place where students seem genuinely happy to work and actively collaborate with each other and their professors.