WHEN HE LEFT his science teaching job in 1973, Ben Eichelberger knew that if he stayed in the classroom, his salary prospects were grim. With a masters degree and eight years experience, he was earning about $10,000 with little hope of improvement.

Ben's money problems are an old story to teachers, and for that matter to taxpayers. Sights of teachers on picket lines, and schools closing for want of money to heat buildings, let alone pay salaries that are competitive with the private sector, are becoming all to familiar. Ben's salary in 1973 was slightly below the national average for all teachers at that time. Today, the national average salary has increased to approximately $15,000. For the average teacher who spends about 46 hours per week for about 36 weeks a year on about 25 students, this works out to a pay rate of 36 per student per hour -- considerably less than the average babysitter collects.

Ben's fear of the future was more than an unwillingness to tolerate the normal tedium and unpleasantness associated with any job; it was a desperate feeling of being trapped.

"I had five classes and four different preparations. During one week I had to collect tickets at the basketball games on three nights. I had to beg for everything -- even equipment for experiments -- because I didn't have a budget. I never got to make any decisions," he said. Such feelings of helplessness are not common to all teachers, but there is growing evidence that they may be more frequent and more pronounced than ever before.

Losing Ben Eichelberger or any other one science teacher may not cripple science education, but we are rapidly approaching the point where losing any two science teachers might. Last year at the University of Maryland in College Park, there were seven students who graduated with certification to teach a science specialty. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, there were only six. Some of the 13 may never have intended to teach in the first place, and some may have taken their initial jobs with business or industry, bypassing the classroom altogether. Nationwide, the production of certified science and math teachers is down while demand is up, and likely to go even higher as elementary and secondary schools experience what demographers refer to as the echo effect of the baby boom -- or that period when children born near the end or World War II send their children to school.

So who loses if the schools fail to provide adequate science education for the young? The standard response, of course, is that any time schools fail to yield literate citizens, society loses. This is particularly true of science literacy. The boom in microelectronics, for example, has created a new industry that already touches our lives in many ways: from banking and shopping to medical care and national defense. The revolution in genetic engineering, too, promises to change not only the food we eat and the clothes we wear, but the hand that fries the egg and buttons the shirt. Without first-rate science educators in the schools, society will certainly lose. Technical expertise to maintain and advance complex scientific systems will dwindle. But perhaps more threatening, the masses of children who pass through the nation's schools will fail to consider seriously the benefit and harm that science can render. Only competent science teachers in schools can help children ask the kinds of questions that will help them be intelligent members of a technologically sophisticated society.

What is surprising is that there are so few initiatives to attract and keep qualified science teachers in the public schools. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell was quoted recently as favoring bonus payments as a possible solution to the problem. Others have suggested that salaries of teachers in high demand specialities, e.g., science and mathematics, be allowed to float upward, irrespective of the traditional lock-step teacher salary schedule, in order to compete with business and industry. Perhaps it will not be long before business and industry leaders realize it is in their own best interests actively to support science training programs in the schools. Also, why not encourage retired people who have the teachnical skills, experience, and desire, to spend some time sharing their knowledge with children? Or perhaps localities could finance the education of a science teacher with the stipulation that he or she return there to teach -- as some small towns have done with physicians. There are undoubtedly other possibilities for strengthening a sagging science curriculum, but currently few efforts are visible. Much to the dismay of science educators and concerned citizens, the creative energies needed to revitalize science education seem -- like the National Science Foundation training programs for science teachers -- to be in danger of falling by the wayside.

As for Ben Eichelberger and his family, life is different now that he's not in the classroom. He still worries about money, but not as much as he used to. He will earn about $30,000 this year by applying scientific principles, not by teaching them: he is an electrician working in and around Charlottesville. What Ben Eichelberger does today is important to the public. What he used to do was supposed to be important too. But as Ben points out there is little doubt which comes first.

"Now people want me to help them. There are no complaints, no arguments about the bills. They don't even request written estimates. But where are our values when we pay the guy who fixes the washing machine $30,000 and the teacher $15,000-$18,000?" he asks. "Granted, it would cost a lot to raise teachers' salaries 25 percent or so, but it seems like the attitude could be changed to give teachers more of a feeling of being in charge without costing that much." What Ben knows about teaching, then, has hurt him spiritually, not financially. He has learned the hard way that the best way to uphold the standards the public has set for itself -- is to six light fixtures and unplug kitchen sinks, not stretch children's minds.