Catalyst: Developing Technology for Education investigated how computers could best be used as teaching machines. The Catalyst group found that computers could provide a unique entry into new domains of knowledge, helping the novice access in a few keystrokes the kind of information and expertise usually acquired through years of experience. Computers, for example, could help the novice learn how to compose a song, make sense of original historical documents, or write a computer program. In these cases, the computer was used as a tool--not as a technology to be learned in and of itself, but as an ally in an effort to solve a problem or fashion a product.

These findings led to the development of three "Catalyst projects," engaging enough to invite the novice to attempt the kind of long-term, challenging tasks usually reserved for experts. Each project employs a powerful computer software tool to handle many of the technical problems of the discipline; a database or library of examples and useful information in that discipline; and step-by-step instructions and procedures.

  • SongSmith explores the central problems of music composition--including lyrics, voicing, contour, and harmony--by helping the user compose a limerick and set it to music.
  • Immigrant 1850 reveals the dynamics of social history as the user makes decisions for an Irish immigrant family arriving by ship in Boston in the 1850s.
  • Just Enough Pascal presents basic concepts of the Pascal programming language as the user constructs a computer game in which an animated character must negotiate a maze.

Subsequent research has suggested more ways in which computers and other new technologies can be used effectively in the classroom. One promising area is support for portfolio assessment. The group also examined ways that videotaping can be used to help assess student plays, presentations and other projects; that computers can be used to create portfolios of student work, complete with voice annotation; and that satellite communications can help teachers from different geographical regions share and evaluate samples of their students' work. More recently, groups at Project Zero have explored how Catalyst projects could be designed for alternative venues for education, such as museums or cable television.