Curiosity: The Key to Innovation

Michael Milligan
4 min readJan 20, 2021


2020 was a challenging and extraordinary year, but being the optimist that I am, I always look at each challenge as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. It is amazing to think that just one year ago, most of us didn’t know what COVID-19 was, or that it even existed. We certainly could not have anticipated how it would profoundly change our lives in so many ways, and the potential it has to reshape our future.

We are experiencing an unparalleled moment, thrown into the public health crisis of our lifetime almost overnight. When I made the decision to close ABET headquarters last March, I thought we’d all be back within a month, but unfortunately that is not the case as our staff continues to work remotely. This unprecedented health crisis continues to expand rapidly, particularly in the U.S., where we set new records every day for both cases and deaths.

Before the crisis hit, I was writing about people like Greta Thunberg and Afroz Shah — individuals who have had an impact on our planet through promoting sustainable initiatives. It was just one year ago that I published an article about Shah after traveling to Hyderabad, India, to provide a keynote address at the Seventh International Conference on Transformations in Engineering Education (ICTIEE 2020). I’ve attended this annual event for the past several years and earlier this month, I spoke again during ICTIEE 2021. But rather than flying halfway across the world to attend, I simply logged in to the event platform from my internet browser at home in Maryland.

Last year, my ICTIEE talk focused on how we, as educators, can have a dramatic and meaningful impact on students and the future of our planet. We need to continue preparing them with all the academic fundamentals including math, sciences and design skills. But just as important is their awareness and passion for solving the many complex problems facing our world, and its people. This year at ICTIEE 2021, I spoke about making an impact in a COVID-19 world. In many ways, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to learn how to do things differently, and better — especially in education.

With Disruption Comes Opportunity

As I began preparing for my keynote address, I learned a lot about viruses — their history, evolution and impact on our world over the past many centuries. For example, I didn’t know that there are more viruses on earth than there are stars in the universe, or the significance these viruses played in the evolution and health of humans and other mammals. Did you know that viruses kill more living things than any type of predator? Or that scientists estimate between 8–25 percent of the human genome has viral origins? It piqued my interest and made me more curious — I needed to know more.

Interestingly, just as viruses played a role in our evolution, curiosity played an important role as well. Curiosity has helped humans survive and adapt to different environments, allowing us to constantly evolve and survive. And it will help us solve the COVID-19 health crisis.

Albert Einstein was famously quoted as saying, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious,” but also warned us, “It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”

As educators, we have a duty to inspire curiosity in our students — not discourage it. We can’t simply have them memorize facts and formulas or simply solve problems from a textbook. We need to provide an environment that encourages curiosity and innovation. We must go that extra mile to encourage them to express and share their curiosity with other students (curiosity can be contagious!). Curiosity, and the innovation it inspires will help solve the many real-world problems we experience, like the one we are currently facing: COVID-19.

Here are some ways to spark curiosity in your students:

  • Teach students how to ask quality questions: why, how and what if?
  • Notice when they feel puzzled or confused: is there a teachable moment that will spark a desire to search for answers?
  • Encourage students to tinker: this stimulates curiosity and often leads to innovative outcomes.
  • Teach them to be skeptics: being skeptical requires additional evidence before accepting someone else’s claims are true. Galileo was a skeptic, so was Steve Jobs.
  • Help them explore a variety of cultures and societies: why and how do people think differently, based on where they live or how they were raised?
  • Model curiosity in your own work and teaching: engage in meaningful dialogue about their approach to problem solving.

Graduates of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines will be the ones asking the questions and developing the solutions to help improve the human condition. We must do what we can to make this next generation of students both fundamentally sound in their education and curious to learn.

As STEM educators, we have an opportunity to influence students. Let’s inspire them to be curious and focus on big solutions to global problems. Let’s inspire them to build a better world — one that is safer, more efficient, more comfortable and more sustainable for all.



Michael Milligan

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.