Benjamin F. Payton sees a critical need for skilled high-tech workers whose vision extends beyond the edge of their computer screen. Dr. Payton, president of Tuskegee Institute, is a leading spokesman for high-quality science and math teaching at all levels of public schooling. In 1979, as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, he and several colleagues were among the first to warn that the United States could fall behind in the race for technological leadership.
He is a member of the National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, whose long-awaited report on improving science and math teaching in the United States was released in September.
Although Tuskegee's curriculum is weighted heavily in favor of the applied sciences, Payton is a strong believer in an education that touches all aspects of a student's development.
''Scientists and people who are involved in new technological developments face critical humanistic and value-laden issues so that, to be able to function well as a scientist, one also has to have the capacity to make not only technological judgments, but to make those kinds of value judgments that are embedded, inherent in the work that they are doing. This calls for people who have some training in philosophical and moral reasoning, and who have some appreciation for vehicles of human expression that show us the kind of complex beings we are.''
He believes that one of the basic problems that students have with understanding science is a comprehension of the concepts and the methods of science, which assumes a capacity to read. To really handle math programs in any kind of design or experiment, he contends, one must be able to express oneself clearly.
''When one talks about science and math, one is not just talking about developing narrow technicians; you are talking about people who have a reading comprehension, who can write clearly; and these are all fundamental elements to being able to think rationally and clearly about the modern world.''
Dr. Payton's hesitancy to promote science and math instruction independent of a broader education extends to the computer and the trend in education to flood the classroom with technological hardware.