Creative Inquiry: Using a Positive Feedback Loop to Develop Career Skills and Graduate Student Mentors

Undergraduate and graduate students work through an academic year in a Creative Inquiry (CI) culinary nutrition research project. A positive feedback loop presents the undergraduate members of the CI with the opportunity to be mentored through their investigations and develop new skills important for their future education and career goals.


Within the Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences Department (FNPS), a Creative Inquiry (CI) Culinary Nutrition Outreach course used a five-phase, inquiry-based learning framework (IBLF) to leverage curiosity and engage students in an authentic discovery process to seek solutions through experience. Undergraduate students can apply this experience to a future graduate role in the project, other graduate programs, or the workforce in general. The positive feedback loop (PFL) presents the undergraduate members of the CI with the opportunity to be mentored through their investigations and develop new skills important for their future education and career goals. CIs in FNPS will typically have six to twelve students enrolled for two consecutive semesters. One credit is earned when the contact hours are one fifty-minute discussion/team planning period per week and a three-hour lab (culinary lab time or nutrition outreach community time). Teams must complete a deliverable to be counted into the grade for the credit hour. Deliverables include a peer-reviewed manuscript, a Focus on Creative Inquiry poster that is presented at a university-wide symposium, or a public oral presentation delivered to the university community or at a scientific society symposium (i.e., Institute of Food Technologists, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, or Research Chefs Association). Group projects are common in university settings as a way to approach teaching and learning. Group projects for students may be as short as a team assignment or may last through the duration of the semester. However, group work is not limited to only the classroom setting. Industry work also commonly involves group work or group projects. Thus, learning how to function well in a group is a valuable skill to use both within the classroom and beyond. Applying a structure to group conversations would give students a framework to equip them to lead group conversations in class projects or industry careers.

Creative Inquiry (CI) is a team-based investigation where students examine problems and conduct research.1 This kind of undergraduate research is unique to Clemson University and began in 2006. Investigation teams are led by faculty and/or graduate student mentors (GSM). Research projects are found across all disciplines, ranging from marine ecology to medical devices to magnetic nanoparticles.2 Faculty are tasked with recruiting undergraduate students who are committed and curious about the topic of interest. Graduate students can lead a CI and further their research as well as expand their mentoring experience as part of the PFL. Since the program’s inception, over 33,000 students have experienced CI at the University. CI allows students to take ownership of their projects and take the risks necessary to solve problems.

A CI project undertaken by the FNPS Department was with the Produce Prescription (Rx) program, which delivers free, locally grown produce to medically underserved clients of the Clemson Free Clinic (CFC). This small but impactful operation is run by a team of registered dietitians and Clemson University students.3 Students become involved with Produce Rx through the Department CI Culinary Nutrition Outreach teams.

As the CI team(s) conduct research on a produce item, their culinary and nutrition skills are incorporated in their design, development, and testing of recipes as appropriate for the clients at CFC. Culinary Nutrition Outreach used IBLF to leverage curiosity and engage students in an authentic discovery process to seek solutions to problems through experience.4,5 This student-led environment emphasizes the learner’s participation and responsibility for discovering new knowledge.4 The goal of using this framework was for students to build confidence by practicing and investigating a problem and building engagement and potential interest to continue their inquiries during their graduate work and career. In this course, the positive feedback loop teaches the mentor within the CI a skill development tool for their future. The PFL was not narrowly focused on only the Clemson University FNPS Department graduate students but also applied to graduate success if going to a different university graduate program or directly into the nutrition workforce.

The five (IBLF) phases incorporated into Culinary Nutrition Outreach CI were (1) Orientation, (2) Conceptualization, (3) Investigation, (4) Conclusion, and (5) Discussion.4 The authors adapted the IBLF framework as presented in figure 1.4 For the purpose of this application, the topic or problem is introduced in the orientation phase, and students generate questions. Questioning leads to the conceptualization phase, where students create hypotheses and perform a needs assessment. Students then begin to investigate and conduct observations through experimentation and research. In the conclusion phase, students draw conclusions, make judgments, and offer a solution. Finally, students reflect and discuss inquiry with others during the discussion phase.4

Diagram of how the inquiry-based learning framework phases from orientation to conceptualization, investigation, conclusion and discussion.

Figure 1. Inquiry-based learning framework (IBLF) diagram. Adapted from Pedaste M, Mäeots M, Siiman LA, et al. “Phases of Inquiry-Based Learning: Definitions and the Inquiry Cycle” (2015, figure 3).4

Within the FNPS department CI courses, the roles of undergraduate and graduate students differ. In CI, an undergraduate’s opportunity to participate in a project presents a unique learning experience, and the PFL begins. An example of the PFL within CI is the process by which the undergraduate finishes their undergraduate degree and enters the graduate program while continuing to be engaged with a CI project. When the graduate student begins, they experience a new level of participation in CI as they assume a mentor role to the undergraduate team. Thus, the GSMs have a magnified experience and contribute to the PFL. A fair number of undergraduates participate in the five-year master’s program, which technically begins in the junior undergraduate year.

The PFL gives the graduate student many opportunities to recall what they experienced in CI as an undergraduate and allows them to share that experience with their mentees within the new CI team(s). The team dynamic also provides benefits to the project’s target audience. This GSM-magnified experience provides useful and timely benefits to the CI undergraduates and the faculty lead. The GSM is often close in age to the undergraduates and can relate well to their needs. This sharing enhances the experience for the GSM and provides for overall CI project improvements. The Produce Rx clients benefited as the receiver of tangibles such as educational materials and bulletin board information, recipes, and face-to-face recipe tastings with the undergraduates and the GSM. These magnified experiences for the GSM provide an advantage in their next career step of seeking a dietetic internship placement in pursuit of dietetic registration or employment in the field of culinary nutrition.

The faculty instructor may receive a boost in their area of research as the graduate student may choose to complete a thesis or a non-thesis creative research project in the CI project focus area to complete their academic requirements for the Master of Science degree, such as the work described in this brief with the CI team project at the Produce Rx program at the Clemson Free Clinic. Thus, accelerated research may result from the team’s participation with its unique composition of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty.

Description of Teaching Activity

For this project in the FNPS 4500 CI course, the clients of the Clemson Free Clinic Produce Rx program were the target audience. Students conducted research to create the story of a produce item, designed an appropriate recipe using the selected produce, and developed educational materials. The projects were reviewed by an expert in nutrition. Comments were shared with the CI team(s) and edited accordingly, as noted in table 1.

Table 1. Outline of how the Culinary Nutrition Outreach CI team applied the inquiry-based learning framework (IBLF) within the Produce Rx program.3

IBLF Phases Comments
Orientation by team (Undergraduates engaged and asked questions of CI course faculty and GSM).
  1. Explain the Produce Rx program and the purpose of the CI in the context of culinary and nutrition applications.
  2. Ask questions to determine the level of knowledge on community nutrition, recipe development, design methods for educational materials, and sustainable agriculture.
  3. Identify produce item (Slow Food USA, USDA seed library upstate SC).
Conceptualization by team (GSM, undergraduates, and faculty) for undergraduates to evaluate project and determine needs.
  1. Teams review earlier CI concepts and projects to identify how their work will fit into the program design.
  2. Research produce item (story of the food and develop recipes for the item).
  3. Overview workshop on how to create messaging through media such as bulletin boards and education materials.
  4. Participate in cooking demonstrations, culinary lab skill building, and tastings of produce recipes.
  5. Team presentations by undergraduates, graduate student mentor, and instructor on the factors to consider when working in the field with the target population at the Free Clinic on food insecurity, sustainable agriculture through home gardens, and poverty effects on food choices.
Investigation: Break down the CI course into teams of two undergraduates on a team to gain confidence through practice and investigation.
  1. Undergraduates prepare and provide project presentations on topics listed above. These small teams also research a produce item as assigned for Produce Rx with consideration to the item’s characteristics and the food item’s story.
  2. The small teams conduct recipe design, development, and multiple preparations and taste testing sessions for their produce items in the culinary lab throughout the semester.
  3. General critique and conversation with the team and decision-making on the recipes that will be included in the project.
Conclusion: Teams with undergraduates with support from GSM and faculty solve some problems and make decisions on continuing investigations on produce items.
  1. Design, create, and catalog all produce item education materials and provide them to the Produce Rx program. Create and place bulletin board materials in place at the clinic.
  2. Format and publish recipes in a Produce Rx cookbook.6
  3. Participate at the Clemson Free Clinic during regularly scheduled hours of operation to meet the clients, discuss bulletin board information, and hand out educational materials.
  4. Provide tasting sessions of the recipe item made available in the clinic waiting room for Clemson Free Clinic clients.
Discussion with teams to reflect and explain their research.
  1. Back in the classroom, the team (undergraduate students, GSM, and faculty) debrief the semester activities.
  2. Culinary Nutrition Outreach CI team members communicate learning outcomes to peers and instructors within the department at club meetings, seminar opportunities, and on posters provided throughout the department area hallways.
  3. Graduate student may apply the experience to the next level in their professional career. They highlight the mentoring CI experience within their applications to nutrition internships, present at professional conferences, and emphasize experience within their employment process.
  4. Continue enrollment and research with new undergraduates and a new graduate student within the Culinary Nutrition Outreach CI project the following academic year.

Discussion of Outcomes

The authors at Tennessee Technological University described the efforts and highlighted the perspectives on using a student learning outcome approach to mentor undergraduate researchers.7 A solution was found to advance undergraduate research by providing graduate students with experience as undergraduate CI research mentors. It was concluded that the success of a research project largely depends on the abilities and passion of the graduate student mentor.8 In this Culinary Nutrition Outreach project, undergraduate students gained knowledge and enhanced their skills in culinary techniques, community nutrition, and teamwork. They created recipes and gave presentations in class and at the Focus on Creative Inquiry research celebration on campus. They developed educational materials and bulletin board content. They also visited the Clemson Free Clinic to provide produce item recipe tastings. At the end of the academic year and completion of CI, most undergraduate students reported feeling more comfortable in the areas of the project than they had before. This included skill building in the areas of cooking, recipe development, working in small teams, design of educational materials, and bulletin board content creation. Most importantly, the students participated in visits to the Clemson Free Clinic, where they had an experience meeting the clients and the staff in a real-world encounter.

The graduate students interacted with the undergraduate students and guided them in their investigations. Graduate students also participated in thesis work or the creative research project for the Food, Nutrition, and Culinary Sciences master of science degree within the Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences Department. These research opportunities support graduate students in skill building that they can take into their future internship work and career. One graduate student said, “I would not have been in CI as a graduate student mentor if I had not been in CI as an undergraduate in this project. I have used this experience on my application for my nutrition internship, which begins in the fall following my graduation with an MA in Food, Nutrition, and Culinary Sciences.”

Reflection of Outcomes

GSMs are trained under the IBLF throughout their time as undergraduate researchers. This type of training can then advance the students as they continue their enrollment in the CI course projects and potentially move on to a graduate experience in CI, where they may serve as a mentor to the next team of undergraduate students. By providing a PFL and using the IBLF for students, the instructor of the CI achieves multiple successes. The undergraduate experience is magnified by the graduate (peer) mentoring. The graduate students provide a rich background for the project to continue using a positive feedback loop from their understanding of the basic CI course principles. GSMs share their knowledge and experience with the undergraduates. The undergraduate students in the Culinary Nutrition Outreach Project have been enthusiastic about their work with the clinic clients. Many students used this experience in their postgraduate pursuit of dietetic internships and/or employment in the health care field, as shared with the faculty in the department. The GSM benefits exponentially as they gain experience working with the team and provide for the actual Culinary Nutrition Outreach program at the free clinic. Working with a community-based program such as Produce Rx provided a real-world experience for the graduate student and enhanced their readiness for a dietetic internship and ensuing career as a registered dietetic nutritionist.

Discussion of Potential for Adoption in Other Courses

The PFL can be created in other CI courses using the IBLF. Instructors can identify undergraduate students who are interested in the study area and would benefit from a mentoring relationship. By allowing and working with the undergraduate students to practice the IBLF and develop confidence in their investigations, we may encourage the next graduate mentor to arise from within the program. Instructors should identify the students who are seeking a graduate degree in the department and offer them an opportunity to continue their explorations as a GSM.

References Cited

  1. About Creative Inquiry. Clemson (SC): Clemson University Creative Inquiry; 2023.
  2. Current Projects. Clemson (SC): Clemson University Creative Inquiry; 2023.
  3. Hamilton J. 360-degree analysis of the produce prescription (Rx) program [dissertation]. Clemson (SC): Clemson University; 2021 May. Located at:
  4. Pedaste M, Mäeots M, Siiman LA, De Jong T, Van Riesen SA, Kamp ET, Manoli CC, Zacharia ZC, Tsourlidaki E. Phases of inquiry-based learning: definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educational Research Review. 2015 Feb 1;14:47–61. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2015.02.003.
  5. Creative Inquiry 101. Bethlehem (PA): Lehigh University, Creative Inquiry; 2023.
  6. Kunkel B, Condrasky M, Black E, et al. Produce Rx recipe and health notes cookbook. Clemson (SC): Clemson University; 2022.
  7. Carroll AJ, Richards KD, Lisic EC. Use of creative inquiry as a model for undergraduate research mentoring: co-curricular and curricular approaches. Perspectives on Undergraduate Research & Mentoring (PURM). 2017;6(1).
  8. Andrini VS. The effectiveness of inquiry learning method to enhance students’ learning outcome: a theoretical and empirical review. Journal of Education and Practice. 2016;7(3):38–42.

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