Don Cline has worked for years to promote mathematics and science education in North Carolina, and as a result he spends a lot of time talking about hands-on learning and his passion for astronomy.
“Astronomy is the kind of science that everyone gets excited about,” says Cline, president of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) headquartered about 30 miles southwest of Asheville. “I’m trying to involve everyone from kindergarten students to senior citizens in hands-on science. I call that K to gray.”
Cline is the recipient of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center’s Champion of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Award for his efforts to promote education in those disciplines.
Under Cline’s leadership, PARI provides hands-on educational and research opportunities for a broad group of people in science, technology, engineering and math. Its 200-acre campus houses 30 buildings with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space and also boasts more than 60 Internet-accessible instruments ranging from radio and optical telescopes to earth science, weather and atmospheric monitoring stations.
What is used to teach today was once used by NASA to track satellites and monitor manned space flights. NASA originally built the site in 1962. It was closed in 1995 and scheduled to be dismantled, but Cline led an effort to save the facility for public education and research, founding a not-for-profit foundation and establishing the institute. Cline and his staff focus on research, education, and public outreach through their programs at the facility, which hosts thousands of science and technology professionals and students each year.
“I’ve been pursuing my interests in science for 12 years since I went into semi-retirement. My goal is to try to involve people in science,” Cline says. “I’ve always been interested in trying to have things about science available to people of all ages, to give them that opportunity.”
At the institute, that commitment to a broad educational base plays out through several programs. There is the portable planetarium, StarLab, which travels to schools and other public events to support the North Carolina and South Carolina curricula. Homeschool Day invites homeschool students of all ages to PARI for modules on the theme of planetary atmospheres. And the 4.6 meter telescope called Smiley can be accessed remotely from any computer in the world.
“Smiley is very good for the classroom,” Cline says. “That’s the way you learn science. The process of doing is experimenting, is challenging, is problem solving. All students should have this opportunity,”
Cline’s focus on hands-on learning and giving students of all ages the tools they need to do that runs through all of the programming at PARI. He says it is exciting for me to see would-be scientists making those first connections even if it is just understanding a fundamental principle about the way light travels.
“There have been many times that I’ve walked through an area doing training and heard comments that this is really fun or I didn’t think I’d like this but this is really fun,” Cline says. “You see that look on someone’s face when for the first time they understand the Doppler shift, there’s a big smile.”