Plans to aid math, science education bubble in Congress

Pioneering research on chemicals that appear as unpronounceable as his name has made Wieslaw Czeslaw Topolski one of the top teen-age scientists in the United States.

But back at his crack, science-oriented Manhattan high school, the senior works with antique timers, old chemicals, and Bunsen burners that won't light.

''We need money desperately,'' he sighs. ''Some of our equipment looks like it was made in the 18th century.''

Michael Hyman, of Ellicott City, Md., was inspired by a ''fabulous'' physics teacher to design a three-dimensional display screen for microcomputers. But Michael's mentor recently left school for a higher paying job in industry.

''There's definitely a problem with teachers' salaries. And they just get too much hassle,'' says the 17-year-old.

The experiences of these two students - both finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search - are all too typical. Pre-college science and math education in the US is rapidly becoming as old-fashioned as an abacus.

After years of bitter struggle, Congress is finally close to passing science and math education improvement legislation. The bill is more expensive than the administration wants - but it would still leave federal efforts to aid such education far short of their post-Sputnik-era peak.

The central problem of US science education is a shortage of junior and senior high school teachers. Many of these teachers can take their skills to industry and earn up to 40 percent more pay.

Even the most resolutely math-shy can understand the statistics: 43 states reported shortages of math teachers in a recent national survey. Forty-two had fewer physics teachers than they could use. At the same time, the number of new math and science teachers being trained has plummeted 77 percent over the past decade.

As a result, coaches and history teachers are drafted to teach physics and algebra. Half of US high school science and math teachers are not qualified to teach their subjects, estimates the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

''We look at these numbers and we can't believe them,'' moans Bill Aldridge, executive director of the NSTA.

Equipment is ancient. Courses are out of date. ''New Math'' instruction methods are now 25 years old, points out Betty Vetter, director of the Scientific Manpower Commission. Half of all high- school students, uninspired by math and science courses, drop them like a hot test tube after the 10th grade, cutting themselves off from careers on the frontiers of high technology.

''We shouldn't let these kids, who aren't yet mature enough to see what they're doing, close these doors on themselves,'' she says.

States and local school boards are responding to this challenge. North Carolina has established a core school for science and math that serves the whole state; New Jersey has established a summer program for promising young scientists.

But many scientists and educators are calling for Washington to lead the way in refurbishing pre-college science and math education, as it did in the early ' 60s when the Soviet Union's leap into space sent a shock through the US.

''The federal effort in this area is woefully lacking,'' says Dr. James Rutherford, education chief of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

President Reagan, after trying to slash science education spending in his first two budgets, took an about-face and pledged in his 1983 State of the Union address to upgrade pre-college instruction in science and math. His proposed '84 budget included $50 million for training science and math teachers.

Congress, however, is likely to leap past the President and approve a more extensive federal effort in this area. Eighteen bills related to scientific education have already been introduced, with more dropping into the hopper every day. The House, where a science education bill stalled last year because of a bitter jurisdictional fight between committees, has in fact already passed legislation that goes far beyond Reagan's proposals.

The Emergency Math and Science Education Act, approved March 2, would cost $ 425 million: $250 million would be funneled through the Department of Education in a block grant for school districts to train teachers and buy new equipment; $ 75 million would be spent on training prospective science and math teachers, with the money going for summer workshops, curriculum development, and up to 15, 000 scholarships; and $100 million would go to projects specifically approved by the National Science Foundation.

A Senate subcommittee began its hearings on the subject Tuesday. The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont is backing one bill; the chairman of the full committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, will weigh in with another. Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio is proposing to give tax breaks to employers who hire science and math teachers during the summer. Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts wants to train teachers with money from federal energy and mineral reserves.

In the end, say key subcommittee aides, the Senate is likely to consider a bill that roughly resembles the House effort, but costs slightly less money. It's inevitable, they say, that Reagan's $50 million ante is going to be raised.

Science educators say they're happy about the action they see on Capitol Hill - but that federal efforts still pale compared with the billion-dollar National Defense Education Act of 1958, which was passed in response to the launch of Sputnik.

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