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'Fun' Becomes 'Hard'

The New York Times' Christopher Drew says that while middle and high school students view challenges in science and engineering as fun, that "excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality" — university-level STEM studies are often viewed as tougher than they are fun. "Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out," Drew says.

Citing data from a new University of California, Los Angeles study, Drew says "roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree," and adds that "that increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included." UCLA's Mitchell Chang tells the Times that "we're losing an alarming proportion of our nation's science talent once the students get to college. It's not just a K-12 preparation issue."

To combat the problem, the Association of American Universities announced a five-year initiative in September "to encourage faculty members in the STEM fields to use more interactive teaching techniques," Drew says. Still, time and funding for such initiatives is sparse. "While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates," according to the Times.