When NBC's Today Show crews rolled into town recently, it wasn't to film the demise of the artificial heart program, the farewell to South High School, or the erosion of parts of area highways caused by June's uncommonly high temperatures.

Gov. Norm Bangerter and his two contenders weren't interviewed before the bright lights. Neither were Robert Redford or Marie Osmond.The network reporters and photographers came to Utah to investigate why a state known for its controlled craving for alcohol and nicotine seems to have an insatiable appetite for another drug.

The Today Show on Monday is to focus on Utah: the nation's No. 1 Ritalin state.

Two of the unpretentious stars - 12-year-old Tyler Steineckert and his mother, Terri - welcome the national publicity.

"Ritalin has given me a son - very literally," said Terri Steineckert, who vividly recalls her trials during Tyler's youth. At 18 months, he dropped burning matches on the front room carpet. At age 3 he was kicked out of preschool for disruptive behavior. And in kindergarten he was spanked in school by the principal. Every parent-teacher conference was a nightmare.

Then in 1986 a Utah teacher recognized Tyler's medical problem, and a local pediatrician prescribed Ritalin.

"I have been so impressed with the results of his medication and Tyler's `turnaround' and successes scholastically, not to mention emotionally and socially, that I am eager to inform the world of this disorder so that much frustration, anguish and suffering from those affected, their families, their teachers and their classmates can be alleviated," the grateful mother said.

The Sandy seventh-grader suffers from attention deficit disorder, a syndrome that includes hyperactive as well as inattentive pupils. He's not alone in his suffering.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said that in 1986, pharmacies along the Wasatch Front received 25,000 grams of the drug used for hyperactive children. That's 1,558 grams for every 100,000 population, compared with 1,218 grams per 100,000 residents in second-ranking Maryland. In New York, the figure was 347 grams per 100,000.

Needless to say, Utah has not escaped criticism for its frequent use of the drug.

The most outspoken critics are members of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a 19-year-old organization sponsored by the Scientologists. They insist that Ritalin is "one of the most addictive substances known to man" and should be banned.

Terri Steineckert strongly disagrees. So do the hundreds of Salt Lake area parents who, seeking information about attention deficit disorder, have called the parent support group she established.

Group members believe the vast quantity of Ritalin prescribed is justified.

"We are at the crux of the (italin) research in Utah. The public didn't have anything bad to say when we did the first artificial heart transplant," Steineckert said. "What they don't see is that the University of Utah is the leader - the pioneer in a lot of medical avenues. They are doing the research, and our local area is the first to hear about the research and implement it."

Utah, Steineckert also argues, leads the nation in the size of individual families and consequently has the nation's most crowded classrooms. Although Utah ranks near the top of the list in amount of state money going to education, it is last in per capita spending on education per student.

Thus, when overcrowded classrooms are disrupted by uncontrollable children who can't learn, people look for a solution. Steineckert said the solution many conscientious parents have found is Ritalin, a stimulant that helps the kids concentrate.

A local authority on Ritalin, U. professor Paul Wender, will be interviewed live on the Today Show Monday.