This Blog is part of our “Get to Know Our Ambassadors” Series. Each week, we’ll highlight a new Ambassador to help students understand more about the diversity of people and research projects available to students.

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Even if you don’t know what conditioning is, you’re probably conditioning something – or are being conditioned – every day. We condition our dogs to sit, stay, and rollover. Parents condition their kids to clean their rooms or finish their homework. We’re conditioned by society to follow the law. And we’re even conditioned by commercials to spend money on toys, food, and getaways. But what does conditioning mean, and how does it happen?

Conditioning is a way of training someone or something to get them to perform a behaviour that you want them to perform. To explore conditioning in my research, I work with what I think is one of the most fun and beautiful animals in Australia – magpies!

My research is all about understanding how animals learn. To explore questions about learning, I use a form of conditioning called associative learning. In these associative learning tests, we’ve created a homemade task with two wells drilled into it. These wells are covered with lids that hide yummy treats, but swivel when pecked to expose the well below them. We then paint different shapes on the lids and hide a reward in only one of the shapes.
The next part is the most fun! We then present these containers to magpies to see how long it takes for each bird to learn which shape has the yummy treat. In this way, we are conditioning these birds to associate a particular shape with a food reward! If they choose the rewarded shape ten out of twelve times in a row, then our magpie has passed the test and we consider that they have learnt the association between the shape and the reward.

Although this is all very fun, that’s not the only reason I do it. The goal of my research is to measure cognition using this associative learning task to see if smarter birds can better cope in a human dominated environment. To test that question, I pair these associative learning tests with other fieldwork (such as observational behaviours and playback experiments) to see how their learning ability relates to the bird’s behaviour, communication, and even survival!

This is why I’m so excited to be the Arludo Ambassador for the game Rat Zone. Rat Zone is a game where your students train their very own virtual rat using two different types of conditioning – classical or operant. By consistently rewarding your rat with cake under the right conditions, students will train their rat to either perform a natural behaviour (such as rolling over or cleaning its face; this is operant conditioning) or learn a new association (between chimes or lights and a food reward; classical conditioning) like I do with magpies in my research!

What I really love about the game is that it gives students a taste of the research that I do. That means that when I talk to your students and we run the experiment together, my research makes so much more sense to them and they easily understand why it’s important. But I also love the game because there’s a little surprise at the end, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

I hope to see you in your class and help your students learn about conditioning, learning, and why I love working with magpies!

Written by Grace Blackburn

Grace is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia studying the effects of man-made noise on animal behaviour. Grace is curious as to how cognition can aid animals to cope with their ever-changing environment.

Book a virtual incursion with Grace!