The Science Museum of Virginia has its own bracket for the Final Four, and it’s determined by four rats.
On Thursday, the female rodents — each about a foot long including the tail and weighing less than a pound — represented each of the Final Four teams, competing in two-minute games. And in the end, it was Michigan representative Barbara who came out the winner, besting Irene (Louisville) 28-22.
As spectators wandered in and museum staff members handed out pom-poms, the first two players — Irene (Louisville) and Clara (Wichita State) — sniffed the backboard cameras and walked the thin top of the Plexiglas wall, seemingly to get a better look at the audience.
Hope White, 8, and her brother Miles, 5, of Charlottesville sat on the front-row floor with a box of popcorn to share.
Neither of them cared about the real Final Four teams. They were more concerned about a potential escape attempt by the rats.
“I thought they were going to jump out,” Miles said.
Their father, Charlottesville Boys Girls Club teen director Clinton White Jr., brought them and some students to the museum as a spring break activity.
Despite fear of a pregame injury when Irene (Louisville) fell from the table, she pulled off a landslide victory 18-0 against Clara (Wichita State), who seemed a bit disinterested.
Barbara (Michigan) made it to the championship by winning a closer match against Mae (Syracuse) 24-16.
The rats are trained using operant and classical behavioral conditioning, which uses rewards and consequences to shape animals’ actions, said Laura Kramer, the museum’s manager of science conductors and resident “rat wrangler.”
In kid terms: “When you break the rules, what happens? Consequences,” Kramer told the audience. “When you follow the rules, you get rewards. We do both with our rats to train them.”
During the six-month training period leading up to the game, the rats learn in stages. The first is to touch the ball, and then they get a treat. Then they pick it up, walk with it and eventually carry it through the hoop.
“It was the funniest thing,” said veterinary technician Marvis Turner, who came to watch and learn for her own pet rats. “These rats should win an Oscar.”
At the final game between Barbara (Michigan) and Irene (Louisville), there was a struggle for the ball at tip-off, foreshadowing an intense game. As one would go to the feeding hole where Kramer gave a treat, the other would steal the ball and score.
But in the final seconds, Barbara (Michigan) became more aggressive and wrestled the ball away to win 28-22.
Despite the epic battles, the rats have only once correctly predicted the actual outcome of the human version of the Final Four since they started the event in 2008.
Louisville will play Wichita State and Michigan will play Syracuse on Saturday night. The championship game is Monday.