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BYB Summer Camp Internships: Alex on How to Train Your Cockroach


I’m Alex, a neuroscience major from the wonderful Michigan State University (GO GREEN!)**, down in Ann Arbor for the summer as an intern with Backyard Brains. I’m working to be a behavior trainer of the cockroach, Periplaneta Americana, through means of operant conditioning. What is operant conditioning? In short, operant conditioning is a way of changing a behavior through a means of reinforcement whether it is reward or punishment. **editor’s note: Go Blue! 😉

At the start of this internship I faced the initial hurdle of figuring out what I could possibly teach these cockroaches. It was a funny coincidence that, during my first week with BYB, the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” featured an operantly trained cockroach which delivered cigarettes between prison cells. Even though in the show they were working with the same cockroach I am, the Americana, it turns out, this is close to impossible, as this article explains: Orange is the New Black Cockroach Training Might Be Impossible (also a good informational primer on the conditioning of roaches). With a bit of research into the subject of insect operant conditioning and the help of Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, who, like the cockroaches, are capable of being trained to perform simple tasks, we nailed down a plan for my research project: I will be teaching these cockroaches to favor a stimulus they previously disliked.

Cockroaches have an incredible ability to learn and remember tasks, I’m looking to tap into this process and teach them to enjoy the scent of peppermint. Cockroaches naturally dislike the scent of peppermint; so this stimulus is going to work beautifully. I intend on using the work of previous scientists that dealt with the, “Olfactory Learning and Memory in the Cockroach Periplaneta americana (Midori Sakura and Makoto Mizunami 2001).” These researches got their cockroaches to favor the scent of peppermint by utilizing operant conditioning. They rewarded a cockroach with a sucrose solution each time they approached the peppermint scented tube, and punished it with a saline (salt) solution each time it walked up to the vanilla scented tube. The results of this concluded that the cockroaches dramatically favored peppermint when they tested their preference for the two scents.

These cockroaches, after one training session, were able to vaguely hang on to these memories after some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey… stuff , or in real units of measurement, up to four weeks later after being rewarded/punished in a previous training session. The cool thing was, after three training sessions these cockroaches managed to retain these memories in full four weeks later. I also thought I’d mention that each training session lasted only FOUR minutes! So one cockroach being exposed to a peppermint source for a total of twelve minutes over three separate days was able to remember that it enjoyed peppermint one month later, that’s incredible for such a tiny insect! I will be replicating this experiment in a way that can be brought to the high school classrooms at a more economic rate. After replicating the experiment I intend to see if I can interfere with this ability to remember tasks by using a sensory overload system. The cockroaches after a training session will be exposed to an overload of sounds and lights and then be tested to see how long the memory was retained in relation to when they were not under an overwhelming blast of stimuli.

So far I have been working with several folks over at All Hands Active as well as Backyard Brains to construct and design a housing chamber and testing chamber for my cockroaches. I’ve designed a box using a website (, ensured the right scale and size and added several other things that I needed on Adobe Illustrator.


I then used a sophisticated heat beam, which we like to call a “laser” to cut through sheets of acrylic.


We have two laser cutters down at AHA, the first laser cutter was small and had software that required me to export my files into .xps files. I cut out a prototype box on this laser cutter with acrylic and realized that my box was not scaling to the correct dimensions. Despite checking everything over on AI, I couldn’t figure out what the issue was, so I kept playing around with settings and cutting out my box on sheets of cardboard. After a bit of brainstorming and tweaking some settings I found the problem was a scaling issue on the export. At this point though, we had gotten the new larger laser cutter up and running so the .xps file was not necessary at all since the new program could import the .ai files right from AI. I used the new laser cutter and to no surprise it cut magnificently through the acrylic sheets on the first pass!


I’ve become, as Greg calls me, “The master of the laser cutter” down in AHA.


I have put my cockroaches in my newly crafted resident box and have begun setting their circadian rhythm (activity cycle) to 12hr:12hr opposite to our sun cycle.


What this means is when our sun is up in the sky, the cockroaches will be in twelve hours of darkness, and when our night time comes, I have the cockroaches in a twelve hour lit chamber. The reasoning behind this is that I want to have the cockroaches active, as they are nocturnal creatures, when I’m down in the workshop and need to teach them science! Throughout the length of this summer I will be keeping a written log in my lab journal to keep all my data and progress that will help me in the end when I go to write up my scientific paper about my research. Well I have some cockroaches to train, the preference testing starts this week! Allons-y!

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