I had a look at the NY Times article describing attrition rates in college technical degrees. A quick synopsis: Technical students (they call them "STEM" for "science, technology, engineering and math") in US institutions are hitting a bit of a wall in the first few years of college because they have trouble with the theoretical backings to much of their engineering work, etc.
My knee-jerk reaction to this is "Buck up, buddy". Do you really want an engineer who designs a hand-held phone that doesn't actually understand basic electricity and magnetism? Do you want a doctor to prescribe you a potentially lethal narcotic when they don't know how to compute an exponential decay for a well-known solution to a trivial differential equation problem?
Not me! Thanks so much!
While the overall tone of the article was unsettling (they belittle the foundational work that lies at the basis of all of these technical fields at a very fundamental level), they do make a good point that the "rubber needs to hit the road" much earlier for students so that they can see where all of this comes into play. I'm a strong advocate for research being an integral part of a good science education, which is why I push people who are looking into science as a career to go somewhere that has an active research program. Having only "academic classroom" environments is a career killer there. Students need to be engaged in what they're interested in doing, and see that there are reasons why all of these classes are required material. Typically people giving lectures don't have the time during class to cover lots and lots of real-world applications, but the same professor may have some great insights into applying it in their own research when they have more time outside of class.
This article is part of a general trend that I see happening in the US: things are hard, so make them easier. Never mind the fact that the rest of the world seems to have no problem with them, and US students in the past ALSO had no problem with them. Science and these technical fields have a very hard adversary that is not so forgiving nor understanding: NATURE. It's cold, it's cruel, it's not interested in changing things to make life easier for you, and fortunately or unfortunately, it happens to correspond to reality!
So yeah, the "buck up" response is still high on my go-to list, but I'd soften a little and add "but if you're confused, ask your professor how this is applied to the real world!" Typically they'll be all too glad to assist.