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It's no secret that American students do poorly in math and science when compared with students in other countries. The big question is how to correct this problem. Relying on Congress to come up with some "program" to do the job is unrealistic.

First of all, while Congress recognizes the need, budget squeezes will keep any ambitious spending plan from being approved. Drugs, homelessness, health care, pollution and other societal ills are balanced against a necessity to cut federal spending. Under the circumstances, science and math education are not likely to rise to the top of the agenda.Yet having enough scientists and engineers is going to be crucial to the future economic health of the United States. Already the supply is not keeping up with the demand. The National Science Foundation estimates that in 15 to 20 years there will be a "tremendous shortfall."

The United States simply will not be able to compete with other nations in the high-tech world of the future if it lacks enough experts in that technology. The result will be a second-rate economic power - a condition that could affect the pocketbook and lifestyle of every American.

Once before - when the Soviets stunned the United States in the late 1950s by launching the world's first space satellite - Americans saw themselves as being left behind and quickly mobilized a huge effort to upgrade science and math.

That same galvanized response is lacking this time around. Also missing is the enormous upsurge in federal spending for science and technology that accompanied the response to the "Sputnik" challenge.

Without that federal backing, ways must be found to cultivate a greater interest in math and science among school children. However, too many youngsters are improperly taught early in life and the career decisions toward math and science are closed off before they can really be considered.

A recent National Science Foundation study indicated that behind poor student performance is an army of underqualified teachers.

The NSF report showed that many states have no math or science course credit requirements for elementary school teachers; that 31 states have no such requirements for middle or high school teachers, and half the states do not require would-be teachers to take courses on science and math teaching methods.

Fortunately, Utah is among those states that have specific requirements in all these areas for would-be teachers. But there must be still more emphasis on math and science in the schools.

Some of the expected shortage of scientists and engineers may be solved by supply and demand. Salaries for qualified graduates - already rising - can be expected to soar, thus attracting more people.

Unfortunately, that could make it harder to get or keep qualified teachers. Those with the proper science and math backgrounds will be able to make far higher salaries than they can in teaching. In fact, this already is a problem.

A way must be found to break this cycle and produce far more scientists and engineers. The obvious place to begin is in elementary school math classes, in more science and math requirements for high school graduation, and more qualified science teachers who are paid enough that they will stay in teaching.