The Rat That Wires Schools to the Web

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Judy Reavis recently discovered a brilliant new way to wire public schools for the Internet.

Judy is vice president of Hermes Systems Management, a company in Benicia, Calif., that finds new technology products for schools. One day, Judy was talking to a friend about how difficult it is to find a way to put the wires through the narrow spaces in walls and ceilings of schools. Her friend said he knew someone who had tried to train a rat to wire schools, but had lost patience.

Judy loves working with animals and knew she had the patience. As a scientist, she had spent a lot of time working around rats in research labs and had also trained horses and dogs. Judy had adopted a rat that was left- over from a research experiment. Rattie, a seven-inch-long female white rat with pinkish-red eyes, needed some activity to spice up her life. So Judy decided to train Rattie to bring the Internet to schoolchildren.

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This rat loves to work

So far, Rattie has helped wire eight schools. She has had a number of requests to wire more schools and is becoming famous nationwide. She carries Judy to fame along with her. When Judy got on a plane recently to go to a conference in Chicago, a boy turned to her and said, "You're the Rat Lady!" Judy relates, "He was on a basketball team, and he went and got his teammates and said, 'I sat next to the Rat Lady!' "

Judy's company, Hermes, is a major sponsor of NetDay, when volunteers nationwide help wire at least one classroom in their community for the Internet. The program, which began in California, aims to have all public schools wired by 2000. The next NetDay will be Oct. 25. Rattie has already had requests from many schools to assist with NetDay, but fortunately, some schools have chosen dates before and after NetDay, so Rattie won't have too much work all at once.

It took about three months to train Rattie. Judy spent 20 minutes a day training the rat, but the training was not continuous because Judy travels a lot.

Judy says rats are smart. "It's pretty easy to train a rat, easier than a mouse. She was easy to train because she loves to climb."

Initially, Judy designed an obstacle course for Rattie. She had Rattie go through a two-inch PVC pipe, a standard type of plastic pipe used for running cable through walls. She also had Rattie practice going through chicken wire, fiberglass batting, and other materials she might find on the inside of walls and ceilings. She tapped on the walls so Rattie could follow the sound, and at the end, Rattie would find a treat of cat food.

Now Rattie finds new snacks at the end of her journey - Gummi Bears. "Her favorites are the green ones," Judy says.

The rat crawls through small spaces between boards, concrete blocks, or fiberglass in walls and ceilings where humans can't reach. She carries a pullstring, which is tied on a harness around her body. Attached to the pullstring is the cabling, and when Rattie comes out, volunteers feed the cable through the pathway Rattie has found, by pulling on the string. Rattie can go into older schools that have asbestos, which is dangerous for humans.

"I used to let her go through subflooring," says Judy, "but she didn't come out of one of the subfloors for about 20 minutes. I was afraid she might have met her fate by a cat, a wild rat, or getting stuck. She's getting elderly, and now I don't let her go through floors anymore, only walls and ceilings."

She comments, "Rattie is the very first rat to ever do this, to the best of my knowledge."

What makes her so special?

Rattie loves working with children. Judy takes Rattie to the schools where she talks to kids about computers. The rat likes visiting the schools and being touched and held by the kids. During her free time, at home, she likes to build nests in her crate.

"Every rat has a different personality," Judy says. Rattie is a fearless rat. Judy has a Chesapeake Bay retriever, Liberated Spirit, who was taught to catch mice that came into the house. "He can't understand why Rattie is this prized rat," Judy says. "He thinks, 'Why is this one special?' Recently he was pushing on the crate and Rattie bit him on the nose.... Rattie is not intimidated by anything."

Rattie is now 2-1/2 years old, and a white rat usually lives two or 2-1/2 years. So Rattie has an apprentice rat in southern California, called Rattie Junior. She is also a white rat, which Judy saved from being fed to a boa constrictor.

Eric Watkins, a nine-year-old special education student in Claremont, Calif., is helping train Rattie Junior, or Julie, as he calls her. "He saw me on TV," says Judy, "and said to his mom, 'I have to go see the Rat Lady.' I told him I needed an apprentice. He'd had a pet rat that just died, so he was very interested in this." Rattie Junior will be making her first trial run in October.

It looks as if the Rattie tradition will spread farther. "I was just contacted by a school system for special education schools. [They want] to create a curriculum where kids train rats and learn about technology," says Judy. "They're asking me to participate so there'd be a certification process, so Rattie would certify the rat as a Rattie Apprentice."

To hear Rattie answer your questions about computers and technology (script written by Judy), you can visit Judy's interactive Web site at: www.judyrat.com

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