The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) is a not-for-profit foundation established in 1998. Located in the Pisgah Forest 30 miles southwest of Asheville, PARI has an ideal location for astronomy.

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA selected the site for tracking manned and unmanned space flights. In 1981, the facility was transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense for intelligence gathering in defense and satellite communications. In 1995, the facility was closed and turned over to the U.S. Forest Service, where a few years later, it was purchased to use as an astronomical research and educational facility.

Today, the 200-acre campus houses radio and optical telescopes, earth science instruments, 30 buildings, a full-time staff, and the entire infrastructure necessary to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and research in North Carolina and all over the world.

Don Cline, PARI’s founder and president, said PARI’s mission is to offer research and educational opportunities in radio and optical astronomy in addition to related disciplines of physics, engineering, chemistry, and computer science. The goal, he added, is to become a recognized center for world-class research while providing educational opportunities for all students in every geographic location.

WRAL Tech Wire STEM News recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Cline and learn a little more about PARI:

What is PARI’s role in STEM education?

PARI’s mission included STEM education long before that term came into popular usage. Today, PARI fills a vital role for students from kindergarten through the 12th grade by providing real experiences in science. We have found that many students have an aptitude for STEM disciplines but can become frustrated and disinterested by rote learning in a traditional classroom setting. So, PARI has developed nontraditional, inquiry-based, hands-on programs that literally take education out of the classroom. As a result of their work at PARI, students can become excited by science and begin to seriously consider careers in science and technology.

You mentioned K-12 education. Does PARI also provide opportunities for older students?

Definitely, but here again, our approach fills a need that is often missing in traditional programs. At PARI, students learn science by doing science. PARI provides opportunities for undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students to experience science in new ways. We have scientific instruments here, like our two massive 26-meter (85 foot) radio telescopes that college campuses simply cannot afford to build and maintain on their own. We make these instruments available to students, and they usually cannot get this kind of access anywhere else. Here, the students are free to experiment, to fail, and to learn by experiencing the real world of scientific exploration. They quickly learn the answers are not in the back of the book – because there is no book. We also involve the older students in some of our K-12 programs as they serve as mentors and role models for the younger students.

What type of STEM programs are offered by PARI?

Not long after PARI was founded, we invested in a StarLab portable planetarium and started taking it to area schools and other venues throughout Western North Carolina. In a school, we typically set up StarLab for an entire school day or sometimes multiple days. Usually, each student in the school gets an opportunity to witness a StarLab program. Areas of study are designed for various grade levels and include The Reason for the Seasons, Stars of My People, Stars of Lewis and Clark, Realm of the Planets, Motions in the Sky and Observing the Radio Sky. All the presentations are made by a PARI astronomer/educator and so far have been viewed by more than 70,000 people.

That sounds interesting. Is there more?

Yes. We also have devised a way for our 4.6-meter (15 foot) radio telescope to be used remotely by teachers in a classroom setting. We call the telescope “Smiley” because it has a “smiley face” painted on its surface. It has become one of our iconic images, and students love it. We developed a curriculum workshop for teachers in grades 8-12 on radio astronomy that allows them and their students to access Smiley and conduct experiments via the Internet. About 750 teachers have been certified so far, and Smiley has been used to benefit more than 5,000 students, some as far away as Australia. PARI also has hosted a Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP) the past 11 summers, which provides a two-week, on-campus intensive learning experience for talented high school students to conduct astronomical research in a team environment using equipment available through the Internet or on PARI’s campus.

Tell us about some of your efforts to more girls interested in STEM fields?

PARI has been selected as the host institution for the North Carolina Girls STEM Collaborative, a member of the National Girls Collaborative, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The collaborative provides three years of grants, professional development, and other resources to individuals and groups in North Carolina who are involving girls in STEM disciplines. We also host SciGirls, a monthly program for girls aged 9-14 that works in conjunction with a national effort to engage more girls in science with fun, hands-on activity sponsored by Twin Cities Public Television.

What are some of the newer STEM programs at PARI?

SCOPE (Stellar Classification Online – Public Exploration) is an online resource that makes images in the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA) available to students and the general public. PARI astronomers maintain a website ( that allows citizen scientists to log in, learn about stellar classification, and participate in the effort to classify stars recorded in the APDA within the University of Michigan’s objective prism plate collection. This is the first time that these stars have ever been classified. Also, a recent grant from the NSF has enabled PARI’s STEM resources to be available through the National Science Digital Library. Once again, the broadband resources have been the key to the success of this project. Finally, HomeSchool Day is a new effort that offers an on-campus experience for students being schooled at home. Morning and afternoon sessions include age-appropriate astronomy workshops and a program in the StarLab planetarium. These programs are scheduled each spring and fall. PARI is currently working with a network of state-wide homeschoolers to determine additional ways that we can serve this important segment of K-12 students.

Mr. Cline, thank you so much for taking the time with us today.

You’re welcome. Thank you.