"What is really beautiful," Albert Einstein once said, "is science."

Evidence is mounting, however, that most American students do not share his sentiments.

A growing number of them are pulling the plug prematurely on science and math. And rarely do they turn on again to those subjects -- not later in the classroom, not on the job, not in everyday life.

That might seem like just another nagging problem in education. But educators, scientists, corporate leaders and government officials warn that as modern technology permeates practically every aspect of American life, it will be societal suicide to continue cranking out a majority of high school graduates with negligible backgrounds in science and math.

"We all need to recognize this crisis," says Anna J. Harrison, chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Any child who is denied the opportunity to have a meaningful experience with science is deprived. Their capacity to be a full part of society is diminished."

Harrison blames the crisis on a similar educational trauma in the United States following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. America's response to the first man-made satellite in space was to produce more and better scientists and engineers.

Because the post-Sputnik target was the top 10 percent of students, elementary and secondary curricula were redesigned to separate the scholastic wheat from the chaff. Recent studies indicate, however, that this redesign has produced an education gap, with public competence lagging far behind technological innovation:

* Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) scores nosedived between 1963 and 1983: The average test score in mathematics fell from 502 to 467.

* Evaluations by the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 1969 to 1982 show a steady decline in scientific knowledge, inquiry, use of scientific method and application of science in everyday life among 17-year-olds about to enter college or the workforce. NAEP also charted a sharp decline in math among 17-year-olds from 1973 to 1982.

* Ninety percent of all high school graduates are scientifically and technologically illiterate, according to a recent University of Northern Illinois study.

* High-school level remedial courses now account for 25 percent of all mathematics courses taught in universities and four-year colleges, and 42 percent of all math enrollments in two-year colleges.

* In a 1985 assessment of achievement in mathematics in 20 industrialized and third-world countries, U.S. students ranked no better than 10th and as low as 18th, depending on the mathematical subject.

* Less than a third of our school districts require more than one year of math and science in high school. In Japan, the requirement is three natural science and four math courses; the Soviet Union requires four years of chemistry, five of physics, six of biology and math each year, culminating a 10-year math program with calculus.

"It's pretty clear we need some drastic changes in science and math education in this country," says John Fowler, director of Special Projects at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and director of the recently formed Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, a cooperative effort of educators, business and industry leaders, and scientists and engineers to "mobilize support" to defuse the crisis.

"We're united in the belief that this time around, our target is all of the students," says Fowler. "We're looking at a task into the 1990s and beyond."

Employment forecasts demonstrate the urgency -- and opportunity. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that jobs for those with expertise in science and technology will increase by at least 25 percent in the next 10 years. During the same period, the current nationwide teacher shortage, which hits science and math faculties the hardest, is expected to double in severity.

International competition in the high-tech market intensifies the crisis. "There is now an international market of low-skill labor and we can't compete in it," says Marc Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum for Education and the Economy, a New York-based group.

"We must somehow create schools in which virtually all kids -- and not a select few -- really have a grasp of the conceptual underpinnings of science and mathematics, and have a real feeling for the relationship between that conceptual understanding and the real world."

Experts say that understanding is essential for the public to use effectively the new products -- from computers to microwaves to robotics. "That's the only way new developments can have a significant impact and an economic return to the American public," says Lawrence P. Grayson, adviser for Mathematics, Science and Technology at the National Institute of Education, the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Education.

"The Japanese high school curriculum develops a fundamental knowledge of science, chemistry and mathematics, including statistics and probability," adds Grayson, who is currently analyzing the Japanese educational system. "It allows its graduates to open a dialogue, a flow of communication, between the technological hierarchy and the average person. They don't simply rely on a small group of engineers to make economic and productive changes."

Critical to the future of democratic society are the non-scientists who become national opinion and policy leaders, says Robert Forney, executive vice president at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. and Triangle Coalition chairman for business, industry and labor.

Is Dioxin safe? Should life be extended artificially in terminal patients? Do we need nuclear energy? What should we believe about acid rain? Public debate over the legality, desirability and morality of issues like these is expected to rage as science enlarges its role in daily life. Industry representatives and scientists, admitting some self-interest, complain such questions are often decided on emotional grounds because the public and opinion leaders don't know enough science.

"Tomorrow's Americans will be asked to pass judgment on . . . scientific and technological innovations that at once enhance and diminish the quality of life," says Michael Guillen, instructor of physics and mathematics in Harvard University's Core Curriculum Program.

"But to prepare tomorrow's students for the responsibilities and opportunities awaiting them, science and technology must be made a standard part of the curriculum -- not merely an optional or incidental one as it is today."

There's little consensus, however, on solutions. Traditional curricula that incite fear and loathing in students rather than curiosity usually comes under initial attack. "Most of what we teach kids is vocabulary, a set of facts, and procedures to memorize," says Tucker. "What we need to get to people is . . . an application of a conceptual mastery in a world that is familiar and real."

Some critics call for appreciation courses in science and math. Says Allen McClelland, assistant to the director of Central Research and Development at Du Pont and chairman of the Education Committee at the American Chemical Society, "The typical high school chemistry text devotes chapters to the concept of mole molecular weight and calculating stoichiometry of chemic equations. Nobody who studies the mole can come out loving chemistry. That's the distinction between appreciation and preparation for expertise."

Dennis Doyle, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, who surveyed about 7,000 corporations, small businesses and colleges on hiring standards, mentions "back to basics." "Employers," says Doyle, "look for the same set of skills in young people and high school graduates, whether it's science, math or humanities -- a capacity to think, a capacity to do hard work, what we call adult reasoning, and self-discipline. We are convinced those are achieved through a rigorous curriculum."

The remake doesn't stop at curriculum. That more and better teachers are needed is unanimous. Studies conducted by NSTA show about half of the newly employed high school science and math teachers in this country aren't qualified to teach their subjects.

Besides "re-professionalization" of the profession, some solutions to the teacher problem revert back to educating teachers: A 1982 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that high school seniors who intend to major in education have taken 20 percent fewer math courses and more than a third fewer science courses than other college-bound seniors. Additionally, education majors scored 80 points below the national norm in combined verbal and math SAT scores and had lower grade point averages.

"The teacher shortage and quality problem . . . is going to take a generation to really turn around properly," says Grayson. "There are things we could do that would have positive effects. Raise salaries of teachers, for instance, to attract better people. But money alone is not going to do it . . ."

That's where corporate support and the private sector are getting into the act. A U.S. Department of Education survey of about half of the school districts estimates that more than 20 percent have "partnerships" with corporations.

Du Pont Co., for instance, sponsors a program, now in its second year, that brings teachers from 29 school districts to its labs for two weeks of studying with Du Pont scientists. "The program recharges teacher motivation and helps them find new ways to make science more interesting," says McClelland.

Hewlett-Packard has committed $6 million to help reverse the trend of engineering and computer science PhDs leaving college campuses for higher-paying industry jobs. Last month, chemists from Mobil, Du Pont, Kodak, Pfizer, the American Chemical Society and the Department of Energy met with top female undergraduates from 15 schools to explore opportunities for women in chemisty -- a career only one in 100 freshmen women nationwide list as their probable field of study.

But while private sector support is increasing, experts say it's a drop in the bucket. "It's critically important to remember the scale we're dealing with," says Doyle. "We spend $120 billion a year on elementary and secondary education. Industry, by its most generous estimate, spends about $50 million a year on elementary and secondary education. The principal source of money to education is still going to be taxes levied."

Some experts say lack of public awareness of the crisis is as much an obstacle as lack of money in tackling the problems of science and math education.

"The solution is going to come from a public awareness," says Grayson, who is producing and directing a slide and tape show for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers to inform the public, via PTA, Lions Club and other meetings nationwide. He says real progress can't come without public support.

"I don't think the public is fully cognizant of the crisis. We don't have a single motivator . . . We don't have a Sputnik to spur public support."

Grayson believes job and economic considerations could be the key to making people take notice. "Tie education right back to the economy. Choices will have to be made. Things have to change. Are cheerleaders more important than the chem lab? We have an awesome task to accomplish."