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Math and science education: 'Glue Not Included'

The new Congress has gotten off to a flying start on math and science education. Hearings have been completed on the first of many bills designed to cure a national problem that was diagnosed long ago but, unfortunately, subjected to the benign neglect of all - agencies, Congress, the science community, school boards.

We in the science research establishment must shoulder most of the blame. It was our constituency pressure that drove down the percentage of the National Science Foundation's money allocated to education from 50 percent of its budget to about 5 percent in a dozen years.

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This administration is of course indicted, since one of President Reagan's early interventions in national educational policies was effectively to do away with the federal government's efforts in improving science education.

The result has been to draw attention to a longstanding national disgrace - the state of mathematics and science teaching in our schools. A Soviet high school student has four or five times as many classroom hours in these subjects as do ours. The Japanese do this, the Germans do that. . . . The litany goes on and on. It is all authentic, and I yield to none in deploring this situation and working to improve it.

Yet I am wary. Turn the clock back a quarter century and there we were in the post-Sputnik era doing guess what? Closing the math and science gap!

Clearly, it will not do to merely repeat all the ''crash'' solutions we used then. Something crucial was missing. The welter of science and math education bills in Congress has all the earmarks of response to a fad. And the typical national turning to a technology fix - the computer in this case - can be merely hype for specialized typing at a more expensive machine or, as Governor Lamm of Colorado observed, a way to avoid painful political decisions. In a fourth down and little time left situation let's call a time out to think. For every decisionmaker I suggest the following questions:

* What or who is the target of any initiative?

Is it the 1 percent of the population that is destined to become the professional scientist and engineer cadre? We worked on that exclusively the last time around (post-Sputnik). Penn State, where I teach, turns out not only excellent football teams but the largest number of engineers among United States universities. In over 30 years I have seen no marked changes in the science preparation and ability of those majoring in the critical applied science and engineering fields. Ability and motivation make up quickly for any preparation deficiencies. The math and science ability of this group is not the problem, the number may be, the total curriculum certainly is.

* What do you think the 99 percent need in this S&T (science and technology) area that can be achieved without major long-term federal funds?

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Go to your local five-and-ten-cent store and buy yourself one of those kits to build a ''model car.'' Take out the plastic bits - the wheels, panels, chassis, engine - and spread them out on the table, and get ready to put them together. Stop! You need something else to hold the whole structure together. You forgot to read the outside label on the box. It says: ''Glue Not Included.''

If you have finished an American college (or high school) education you are exactly in the position just described. You have been given all the pieces: engine (math), door panels (English), fenders (social studies), windows (science), and so on. Each one a different color (neatly packaged into a course) but there was nothing to hold it together, and precious little instruction on how it all fits. The glue of making a whole (education) out of parts (courses) is definitely not provided in the education which 99 percent of Americans receive.

So what is the missing glue in our education?

It is the study of science and technology in relation to society. STS is the new acronym for the most significant change since the war in what is taught on campus. It started literally to ooze out of the pores of the entire body of American academe as a result of the student riots of the '60s.

The flow began at Cornell, SUNY-Stony Brook, Penn State, at Washington University and University of Washington; it spread in difficult fiscal times through the length and breadth of the land. Now over a thousand institutions large and small have some kind of program or other activity in Science, Technology, and Society. MIT has recently started a College of STS, Vassar and Connecticut Wesleyan give degrees in it.

Literacy means acquiring the vehicle of communication with the world around us. Technology literacy can mean only one thing - learning to relate to the real world around us dominated as it is by the S&T motif. That means a radical transformation of the way we teach about technology and, possibly derivatively, science. We start with the human and citizen needs and show how at every level of experience whether learning about birds and bees, or nuclear fusion, S&T is related directly and intimately to our livelihood and our citizenship. STS makes it possible to press for more computer courses or the new biology without immediately asking for more of the related philosophy and the humanities.

Already the British have moved far ahead of us in designing STS materials for high schools. With all the fads and media hype and special ''math and science education'' bills introduced, Congress must make sure that we do not end up with just a different box of parts with ''Glue Not Included'' still on its side.