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Mid-career professionals turn from high-tech to high school

Robert Bliss makes more than $40,000 a year as a fund-raiser for the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. He also collects additional income from his early retirement as a mechanical engineer.

He knows his math and science. Yet Mr. Bliss is contemplating taking a two-thirds cut in pay to leave the white-collar ranks and teach high school students.

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Harvard University's Mid-Career Math and Science Program, designed to tap business and industry for the science and math experts needed in the nation's secondary schools, apparently makes the proposition an enticing one. More than 150 applicants like Mr. Bliss - from a synthetic oligonucleotide chemist to homemakers with degrees they never used - have responded in the month since the program was advertised.

Educators around the country trying to compete with the high-paying draw of business and industry have come up with loan programs and other incentives to entice the fresh-faced undergraduate as well as retirees to careers as math and science teachers.

But the Harvard Graduate School of Education's program is the first to recruit from the cutting edge of math and science - mid-career professionals who use their knowledge in practical ways every day. Who better, reason Harvard educators, to teach the next generation of businessmen and scientists?

''It's a new labor pool for education that no one's seriously tapped . . . the mid- to late-career professional,'' says program director Katherine Merseth. Harvard's program, she says, supports the idea that ''if people stay (in teaching) only five years, that's a legitimate contribution.''

The Harvard program, which begins at the end of the summer, is expected to put at least 10 new high school math and science teachers in classrooms by next spring. That number alone will have a major impact on the shortage of qualified teachers here. Ms. Merseth explains that Massachusetts universities this spring produced only two graduates qualified to teach high school chemistry and two others to teach physics. New Hampshire colleges prepared ony one graduate last year to teach math to teen-agers. This situation is similar to that in many other states.

Ms. Merseth explains that Harvard is not trying just to fill the gap, but enrich the teaching ranks.

''When kids ask, 'Why do we have to learn this?' and a teacher says, 'Because it's in the book,' that doesn't work with kids.''

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''Just observing my own four children,'' says Mr. Bliss, ''I know that if their teachers had possessed a knowledge of how these things could be applied in industry, it might have taken them beyond the required two years of math. My youngest son is in the landscape gardening business. If he had had more math, he could have an easier time of calculating in his head ratios, say, of fertilizer. Now he has to resort to the struggle with paper and pencil.''

''To change careers at 50 is a big step,'' admits Ms. Merseth. But finances at that age don't bar a move to teaching, because usually a professional has the major expenses, mortgage and college education, paid off.

Further, moving to teaching doesn't always mean a cut in pay. For example, many companies offer early retirement benefits of half an employee's final salary. That can be enticing with the added salary, benefits, and generous vacation schedules of teaching.

Ms. Merseth stresses that Harvard is not recruiting professionals indiscriminately. Quality is more important, she says.

''Sometimes people have spent all their lives in front of a (computer's) cathode ray tube, interacting with machines,'' she says. This may mean they're not suited to relate to adolescents, or that they'll be doubly eager for interaction.

In any case, screening for the $8,000 master's degree course is strict.

The one-year program offers no guarantee of a job after graduation. But Ms. Merseth says she is ''100 percent confident'' everyone in the program will find teaching posts.

''Given an opening, I'd seek them out,'' says Troy Earhart, superintendent of Foxboro, Mass., schools. ''We've been hard-pressed to find exciting prospects.'' As an example, he says, none of four candidates for a math teaching opening two years ago knew what the quadratic formula is, one of the basics for Algebra I.