Durham, N.C. — Convinced that education is the fuel that will power the engine of tomorrow's high-tech economy, many American corporations are increasing their efforts to improve the nation's academic product - particularly in science and mathematics.
''We do have an obligation to our own selfish best interest,'' says Dr. Thomas A. Vanderslice, president and chief operating officer of GTE Corporation. ''If we can't find the technical types we need to grow, then we and the rest of our industry are in trouble. We're trying to find every innovative way we can to at least do our part.''
Having surveyed the nation's science and math landscape and declared it full of potholes, US corporations are beginning to act. They are leading the way in developing solutions to the shortage of science and math teachers and finding innovative ways to raise the overall quality of science and math instruction.
A trend setter in the development, manufacturing, and marketing of telecommunications, electrical, and electronic products, services, and systems, GTE is the quintessential high-tech company. But the multibillion-dollar corporation has an Achilles' heel: It needs a smooth flow of highly trained technological workers.
GTE is putting its resources where its convictions are. In North Carolina, the company is sponsoring a statewide program designed to build up the teaching skills and knowledge base of selected science and math teachers. North Carolina was chosen because of its critical teacher shortage and proven good climate for education, encouraged by Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.
A total of 22 teachers from 11 public and private schools (one science and one math teacher from each school) across the state were awarded GTE grants of up to $2,500 for advanced training at a graduate school or appropriate alternative.
Following completion of the training phase, the teachers were given an additional $2,500 that was in turn matched by their schools to enable them to design special projects for the classroom. The program is currently in this second stage.
For the teachers involved, the program has proved to be pure inspiration: ''I think a lot of the frustration in teaching - though certainly its salaries - comes from not feeling real good about the work that you do and the way it's perceived,'' says Daniel Teague, a mathematics teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham and a participant in the program.
''Part of the excitement about the (orientation trip the 22 teachers took to Washington) was the feeling that somebody really cared about the quality of the work,'' he says. ''They treated you like you were really important, and I think to a lot of the faculty there that was the first time they had been treated as though what they did was very important.''
GTE, of course, is not the only corporation lending a hand to public schools. Other examples:
* Xerox Corporation is sending volunteer employees who are scientists and engineers into schools in Tampa, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y., twice a week to provide hands-on experience in physical science and mathematics.
* Atlantic Richfield Company is giving employees time off to teach mathematics and other subjects in inner-city Los Angeles schools. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Company does the same for the Oakland, Calif., school system.
* An investment of $7 million by Phillips Petroleum led to the development of a film series and related text entitled ''Search for Solution'' to augment science teaching at the secondary level.
Other companies have a long history of philanthropy in the field of science and math. For example, Westinghouse has supported the National Science Talent Search, conducted by Science Service, for the past 42 years.
''The companies are recognizing that they have a real strong interest in what comes out of the public schools in terms of a work force they can draw on,'' says Terry Hartle, a research scientist for the Educational Testing Service, which has been retained by GTE and IBM to evaluate and help administer educational programs funded by the two firms. ''I believe theirs is an honest interest.''
While many of the programs are successful, critics charge that most are simply a drop in the bucket compared with the flood of dollars needed to spur improvement on a national scale.
Roberta Hardaker, a biology teacher and chairman of the science department at the Durham Academy and recipient of one of the GTE grants, doesn't see it quite that way. ''No effort that touches a teacher - and then however many students he or she touches - can be considered too small an effort,'' she says.
On the other hand, she acknowledges that similar efforts need to be mounted nationwide if the country as a whole is to benefit: ''If this is something we could look forward to as a trend, that certain sectors of society are showing a willingness to contribute - say a corporation that has a local subsidiary - then it is a promising idea.''