Growing up in Lares, a rural town of Puerto Rico, Carlos Crespo-Hernández knew he loved science but was unsure how to turn that passion into a career.
During his undergraduate years at the University of Puerto Rico, San Juan campus, though, he began conducting chemistry research. Then, through a National Science Foundation Graduate Teaching Fellowship in K-12 education and a NIH-RISE fellowship, while continuing graduate school at the University of Puerto Rico, he traveled to schools across the northeast region of Puerto Rico modeling active and cooperative learning techniques and helping teachers explain scientific principles to students.
At that time, he realized he could merge the two areas he loved—science and teaching—in higher education.
Crespo-Hernández, associate professor of chemistry, will officially accept the award at commencement ceremonies Sunday, May 15, along with Andrea Rager, the Jesse Hauk Shera Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History and Art.
When he received the email telling him of his nomination for the award,Crespo-Hernández was surprised and humbled to have joined an elite group of educators who uphold the values of John S. Diekhoff, who he considers “an outstanding educator and a champion of graduate education.
“I was aware of several of the superb faculty members that have won a Diekhoff teaching award in past, but when I did further research and saw the full list of colleagues who have won this award, I was overwhelmed; it is an immense honor to be thought by students among such a select group of scholars. There are so many great teachers at Case Western Reserve that this is one of the most humbling experiences in my professional career.” he said. “I am extremely thankful to all the students, including the members of the Diekhoff Award Committee, for this honor. There is really no greater reward as an educator.”
Created in 1978, the award is presented annually to two faculty members who have made exemplary contributions to graduate students in the classroom.
As an instructor of what some consider one of the most challenging courses in the chemistry curriculum—quantum chemistry—it seems he’s done just that.
“The ease with which he would walk us through [the material] was clear evidence to me of his understanding of the subject and also of his commitment to facilitate that understanding to his students,” one student nominator wrote.
Crespo-Hernández’s key to getting through to students? His philosophy that “every human being has intrinsic value and is important.”
Realizing that each of his students has different strengths and weaknesses, at the start of each semester, he surveys all of his students and builds the course around the overall needs of the group.
He teaches his students not for an exam or to memorize a set of facts, but instead to prepare them for life. When introducing a new concept to his graduate students, he often teaches it in a generalized manner and then applies it to a real-world scenario—sometimes even if it doesn’t directly relate to science.
At the start of each semester, he assures his students that they must not fret over their current abilities, but instead work hard to get better. And he constantly pushes their boundaries with new challenges to facilitate their growth. As one nominator noted, “He believed we can do well.”
What Crespo-Hernández enjoys most about working with graduate students is watching how, over time, they transform themselves from being learners to young, independent thinkers as their approach to problem-solving and learning changes.
“You see them growing and developing and, instead of simply coming to learn, they become proficient and ready to discuss and tackle the scientific problem at hand,” he said.
But, as his student nominators note, it’s not just Crespo-Hernández’s teaching methods that make him a standout instructor—it’s his passion for the subject that makes all the difference.
His students get to work directly on the projects he works on, including one for which he won a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2013 to investigate how molecules found in human cells, or prescribed as medicines, trigger damage to cellular DNA and are implicated in skin cancer when exposed to sunlight.
“What I admire most about Dr. Crespo is his perpetual drive,” one student wrote. “Whether it is teaching or research, Dr. Crespo is constantly looking for the most effective ways to present ideas and to keep his lectures and publications topical with the ever-evolving scientific field.”