Being curious about curiosity

Ankita Rathore & Manasvi CM

The Curiosity Conference at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) explored the social and intellectual aspects of curiosity, emphasising its role in education, research, and creativity. Speakers discussed how curiosity can be nurtured among students, the use of educational technology, and the challenges in the Indian education system. The two-day event also featured a Curiosity Exhibition celebrating art, science, creativity, and the enduring spirit of inquiry that unites us all.

Glimpse from poster presentation at the curiosity conference, IITGN. Picture credits: Ankita Rathore
Glimpse from poster presentation at the curiosity conference, IITGN. Picture credits: Ankita Rathore 

What is the moon made of? How do you tie a tie? Why do we dream? The answers to our questions are just one search away. With information at our fingertips, the question arises: how do we foster and sustain curiosity? To deliberate on the critical role of curiosity in learning, the Curiosity Lab,Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN), India, in partnership with the Center for Curiosity, USA, hosted the Curiosity Conference’ on August 12 and 13 at IIT Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

This interdisciplinary conference brought together around 200 educators, researchers, students, science communicators, and industry professionals from various fields to explore curiosity. The two days event featured a series of specialised talks, hands-on workshops, interactive poster presentation sessions, and an exhibition on curiosity.

In this article, we summarise key takeaways from the different talks in the conference.

What is curiosity?

Curiosity is fundamentally social, not individualistic. It is relational,” says Perry Zurn, Provost Associate Professor, American University. Curiosity deserves more careful attention as it encompasses the exploration of one’s emerging identity. The essence of curiosity lies in its social nature, shaped by the people around us and our cultural background. Our questions and approach are influenced by our surroundings and the societal context in which we were raised.

Lynn Borton, the host of the Choose to be Curious Podcast, defines curiosity as an intellectual mindset. She encourages people to embrace curiosity, stating, I want people to choose to be curious. By changing my point of view, I can see new things.’ When we approach circumstances with an open mind and curiosity, the unknown becomes an adventure rather than an insurmountable barrier — powerful stuff indeed. Curiosity can be nurtured in our daily routines. Lynn urges everyone to step outdoors and welcome curiosity, whether it’s observing everything that’s red, listening intently for birds, or paying attention to various scents.

As Kushal Sacheti, Founder and President of the Centre for Curiosity, emphasises, It’s crucial to embody curiosity in its truest form, not just in a utilitarian manner.”

Talk by Manish Jain, CCL, IIT GN. Picture Credits: Ankita Rathore
Talk by Manish Jain, CCL, IIT GN. Picture Credits: Ankita Rathore

Creating chaos in classroom

Fostering a sense of curiosity among students is a vital aspect of education, as it plays a crucial role in facilitating effective learning. As teachers, we must embrace controlled chaos in the classroom. We must learn to manage it effectively as it can transform learning into a truly immersive experience,” says a teacher from the audience. Inviting educators to think collectively, Jaison Manjaly, Jasubhai Memorial Chair Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science and Organiser of the conference, IITGN, raises the question:

How many of us actually step out of our comfort zone to engage kids?

The responsibility for cultivating curiosity within students predominantly falls upon educators. Manish Jain, founder of Center for Creative Learning (CCL), IITGN, shares insights gained from more than a decade of working with children. If the child doesn’t observe, then we, as educators, must make them. The students do not learn by just reading or writing. They learn by seeing, touching, smelling, and playing. Only then do inquiry, curiosity, and all the good stuff happen.” 

Educational technology and innovative strategies in classrooms can improve hands-on and active learning, such as the use of social robots. Social robots create empathy and engagement in children,” says Aditi Kothiyal, Assistant Teaching Professor, the CCL, IITGN. She presented some of her research findings on social robots and introduced the audience to robot buddies (Nao, QT, Thymio, and Cellulo) that assist children in learning.

We need to reflect on the challenges that plague education in India. By being mindful of these problems, we can leverage curiosity-based research and its recommendations,” notes Manjaly. There are numerous challenges and significant hurdles in education and learning. Considering the economic constraints faced by many students, it becomes crucial to identify approaches that are both accessible and affordable.

A robust public education system is imperative to strengthen community engagement. Social challenges, as illustrated by the caste system’s divisive impact, significantly shape classroom dynamics and the shift from traditional teaching to a more facilitative learning approach. Parimal Bhattacharya, a writer, recounts his encounter with the Kol tribe, a forest-dwelling community in Orissa: In a place where there is so much sunshine, bird songs, breeze, and freedom, their school building is like a cage, unplastered and without windows. The children are communing with the nature surrounding them, eating mushrooms, tamarinds, and mangoes.” He further laments,

Their textbooks continue to teach them that A is for Apple. The education system kills rather than fosters their knowledge and curiosity.

Curiosity Exhibition

The Curiosity exhibition, skillfully curated by Argha Manna, Artist-in-Residence and Faculty member, Humanities and Social Sciences, IITGN, served as a vibrant celebration of science, creativity, and the enduring spirit of inquiry that unites us all. This artistic showcase featured the creative works of Ipsa Jain, a faculty member from the Shristi Manipal Institute of Art Design and Technology, Bengaluru. Additionally, it proudly presented Superheroes Against Superbugs (SaS),’ represented by Somdatta Karak, Science Communications and Outreach Officer, CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and the Center for Creative Learning, IITGN.

Ipsa Jain’s interactive art installation prompted viewers to ponder the process of scientific inquiry: How do scientists practice their craft? Where do their ideas originate? Can curiosity be ignited within a public space? In a visually engaging manner, SaS conveyed the looming global health crisis of antimicrobial resistance through the lens of compassionate schoolchildren.

The CCL dazzled attendees with captivating creations that illustrated mathematical and physics concepts, including Stellated Polyhedrons and Geodesic Balls, among others. Meanwhile, Manna’s artistic contributions took the form of a wall of curiosity,’ adorned with hand sketches of 100 objects from throughout human history that either sparked human curiosity or were borne out of curiosity. Manna’s collection also featured portrait drawings of 50 individuals known for their unwavering curiosity, including a vibrant depiction of luminaries like Marie Curie in fluorescent green, JC Bose, and Alan Turing. This intersection of art and curiosity beautifully encapsulated the essence of the Curiosity Conference.

Glimpse from exhibition at curiosity conference. Picture credits: Ankita Rathore
Glimpse from exhibition at curiosity conference. Picture credits: Ankita Rathore

Curiosity as a research discipline

Within the framework of the current education systems, there exists a glaring absence of room for exploration and a failure to nurture a child’s innate curiosity. Ihsan K, a Ph.D. scholar studying the role of curiosity in enhancing knowledge acquisition, emphasises the significance of curiosity and exploration. He states, At the Curiosity Lab, through cutting-edge research, we seek ways to reintegrate curiosity to transform learning into a joyful experience for all.”

The Curiosity Lab is dedicated to rigorous cognitive science research, focusing on rekindling curiosity in various ways. Their research spans diverse facets, such as investigating the effects of information gaps and uncertainty on curiosity, leveraging curiosity to improve learning outcomes in schools, exploring the connection between mindfulness and curiosity, and examining the role of feedback in nurturing curiosity.

Michiko Sakaki, Professor, University of Tubingen, Germany, challenges the notion that curiosity is limited to children. She points out that although aging is often linked to memory decline, recent research suggests that curious older adults actually experience less cognitive decline and enjoy better physical health. Her research findings also indicate that older adults can exhibit even more curiosity than younger individuals when exposed to stimulating stimuli.

It is crucial for students to be intrinsically motivated by their own curiosity. This intrinsic motivation accumulates over time and profoundly impacts their learning journey. Kou Murayama, Professor, University of Tübingen, Germany, sheds light on this topic. He explains, The process of rewards is intricate. While gamifying learning often yields positive results, offering external incentives to students for their behaviour can sometimes lead to an undermining effect. When rewards are absent, students may lose their initial interest in the task. However, when students are driven by their innate curiosity, free from the need for external incentives, they learn to savour the joy of learning, creating a positive feedback loop.”

Reflecting on her experience at the conference, Garima Shah, a recent graduate in Clinical Psychology from the National Forensic Sciences University, shares, 

When IITGN announced the Curiosity Conference, I struggled to envision what discussions on such an abstract concept would entail. But, the event unfolded as a treasure trove of new perspectives and lightbulb’ moments. 

The Curiosity Conference brought together a diverse range of perspectives and insights, highlighting the growing significance of curiosity as a research discipline with profound implications for education and cognitive science.

To summarise, curiosity is more than a passing whim; it’s a drive to connect and weave an intricate web of knowledge. Curiosity beckons us to peer into the spaces between knowledge, to grasp not only what we see but what lies beyond – the threads that tie it all together. It’s the whisper that urges us to ask, to seek, to connect, and in doing so, to embrace the boundless horizons of human curiosity.