Agnes Scott College

Caren Diefenderfer

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January 18, 1952 - March 30, 2017

A Personal Reflection by Larry Riddle

Caren Diefenderfer was a national leader in promoting the development of Quantitative Reasoning as a field of education to help students develop competency with numerical data and the ability to apply an understanding of mathematical principles across all academic fields. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she attended Smith College where as a sophomore she won the Suzan Rose Benedict Prize for excellence in undergraduate mathematics. She transferred to Dartmouth College as part of the first group of female students admitted to the college. After receiving her A.B. degree in mathematics, Summa Cum Laude, at Dartmouth in 1973, Caren earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1980 with a dissertation on "Approximation of Functions of Several Variables" under the direction of David Sprecher.

Caren began teaching at Hollins College (later Hollins University) in 1977 where she remained for the next forty years, rising through the ranks from instructor to full professor. During that time she served multiple terms as chair of the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science as well as two terms as chair of the Division of Natural and Mathematics Sciences. She even served for one year as the acting director of Academic Computing Services. Caren was awarded the Hollins University Distinguished Service Award in 2008. In 2011 she received both the Herta Freitag Faculty Award as well as the Roberta A. Stewart Service Award. The former honors "a member of the faculty whose recent scholarly and creative achievement reflect the extraordinary academic standards" set by long-time Hollins mathematics professor Freitag. At the May 2017 commencement she was posthumously recognized with the Algernon Sydney Sulliven Community Award (Citation). The Hollins Quantitative Reasoning program that Caren helped to develop and lead as Acting Director became a model for other institutions interested in creating their own quantitative reasoning requirement. Her expertise on quantitative reasoning was recognized by her election as chair of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Special Interest Group in Quantitative Literacy, her appointment as a member of the MAA Committee on Quantitative Literacy and the MAA Committee on Articulation and Placement, and her selection as a member of the Advisory Board of the National Numeracy Network and her election as President of that organization from 2011 to 2013. Her editorial on "The Joy of Quantitative Reasoning" was published in the journal Numeracy in 2012. She was well respected as a workshop leader, invited speaker, and outside evaluator for quantitative reasoning programs at numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Caren was an active member of the Mathematical Association of America. She served the Maryland-District of Columbia-Virginia Section in many capacities and was elected as Governor of the section from 2013-2016. In that position she also served on the national Board of Governors for the MAA. She chaired the Linear Algebra group from 2013 to 2015 for the MAA's 2015 Curriculum Guide. In 2015 Caren received the John M. Smith Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching for the MA-DC-VA section. As the recipient she also became the section's nominee for the national Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. In January 2017 she was one of three winners of this award. The citation reads as follows:

For her work as an outstanding teacher and leader both as a professor at Hollins University and in the larger mathematical community, Caren Diefenderfer is recognized with a 2017 Haimo Award. Her contributions to the teaching of mathematics are deep and broad. She has inspired students at many different levels—high school and college students, math majors and math-averse students, and students in her classroom and students nationwide whom she has never met.
At Hollins University, Caren has distinguished herself as a well-loved professor who teaches a broad range of mathematics courses. In addition to her success with the standard curriculum (students write poems about her linear algebra class), she has designed and taught eight special topics courses in mathematics, and supervised forty-nine senior mathematics projects. She has been an active participant in the Hollins First-Year Seminar program, developing and teaching three interdisciplinary courses, most recently Games, Puzzles, and Logic, designed to help students succeed in college by improving their skill in written and oral communication. Students of many different interests and abilities speak enthusiastically of her influence on their lives.
First at Hollins, and later in the wider community, Caren has been a pioneer in the field of Quantitative Literacy (QL), whose goal is to ensure that all college students become quantitatively “literate” by taking interesting courses at an appropriate level. This movement has had an unquestioned impact on the mathematical education of the current generation of college students. The Hollins QL program served as a model for other colleges and universities, and Caren has traveled around the country giving talks and leading workshops, including an MAA PREP Workshop, on the topic. She was one of the founders of the MAA’s SIGMAA QL and has served as its chair and as president of the National Numeracy Network (NNN). In addition to published articles, Caren is a co-author, with Bernie Madison, Stuart Boersma, and Shannon Dingman, of Case Studies for Quantitative Reasoning (2009) and a co-PI with these coauthors of an NSF grant to study Quantitative Reasoning in the Contemporary World.
Not content to focus on one area of mathematics education, Caren is also an expert on the teaching of calculus, especially at the high-school level. Starting in 1999 as an Exam Leader at the College Board’s Advanced Placement Calculus Reading, she steadily worked her way up to serve as Chief Reader of the exam for four years, and was influential in this role. Based on this work, and on her own experience teaching calculus at the college level, she and Roger Nelsen edited an MAA volume, The Calculus Collection: A Resource for AP and Beyond (2010). She also served as a co-PI on a recent NSF Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science grant (to the MAA) on instruction and placement in algebra and precalculus.
Throughout her career, Caren has also been a tireless advocate for young women learning mathematics. She has forged a successful career doing just that in many different ways, culminating in her recent position as the Director of the Tensor/Women and Mathematics program at the MAA. This program provides grants for projects designed to encourage young women to study mathematics— hosting a conference, organizing a club, providing mentors for students—grants that, by design, have had an impact on the lives of many young women. The MAA recognizes the great positive impact of Caren Diefenderfer on mathematics and nonmathematics students, at her own institution and across the country, and is honored to present her with the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics.

As mentioned in the citation above, Caren was involved with the Advanced Placement Calculus program for many years, beginning as a Reader for the annual grading of the free response section of the AB and BC calculus exams. She subsequently served as a Table Leader, a Question Leader, and an Exam Leader before serving as the Chief Reader from 2004 to 2007. She was only the second woman to be appointed to that position since the program began in 1956. As Chief Reader, Caren was responsible for the accurate and fair grading of over 250,000 calculus exams each year over a 7 day period in June, as well as the final decision on the cut scores that determined what AP grade each of those exams received. She worked closely during this time with the AP Calculus Test Development Committee in setting the standards and policies for the AP Calculus courses and examinations. At the conclusion of her term as Chief Reader, the Educational Testing Services presented her with the following certificate of appreciation:

This recognition is a tribute to more than 20 years of service with the AP Calculus Program as a Reader, Table Leader, Question Leader, Exam Leader, workshop leader, AP Central content advisor, and Chief Reader. Your leadership, organizational skills, tireless efforts, and your dedication to excellence in mathematics education and assessment are acknowledged and applauded by the AP community. Your service to both AP students and teachers is to be commended. As Chief Reader, you were responsible for grading over 1 million exams during the past four years. You successfully dealt with challenges throughout the years, including reading multiple forms of the exams, growth in exam volumes which resulted in a larger Reading, and moving to a new Reading site. Your professionalism and sense of humor, combined with care and concern for others, have made working with you a wonderful experience. We will greatly miss your experience and expertise. Thank you for a job well done!

Caren greatly enjoyed spending time with her husband and two sons. In addition, she was an avid swimmer, both recreationally and competitively at her neighborhood swim club. She sang in her church choir and for several years played bass drum with the Roanoke Bahama Mamas female steel drum band. She combined her musical and mathematical interests by teaching a course on "The Music and Mathematics of Change Ringing" in the Hollins January short term. A long time knitter and crocheter, she also taught a course on "Mathematical Knitting," and upon receiving a Cabell Fellowship at Hollins, delivered the annual public Cabell Lecture on "A Tale of Two Passions: Mathematics and Fiber Arts."

Patricia Hammer, Caren's colleague in the mathematics department at Hollins, shared the following reflection about Caren:

"Early in the development of the quantitative reasoning curriculum at Hollins, Caren and I developed our own private little joke. We'd smile and shake our heads when we heard athletes and others claim 'I gave 110%,' saying quietly to one another 'what mathematical nonsense' or 'boy, do they need to take our quantitative reasoning course.' But Caren and the way she lived her life provides a counterexample to this mathematical nonsense. She did find a way to give 110% to those around her – her family, her students, her mathematical colleagues, her faculty colleagues and the broader Hollins and mathematical communities. It is possible to give 110%. Caren did it and we should all strive to do the same. What an interesting lesson in the mathematics of real life! Caren's last lesson to me."

Partial Bibliography

  1. Special Focus: The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, Editor, 2006-2007 Professional Development Workshop Materials, College Board
  2. The Calculus Collection: A Resource for AP and Beyond, Editor, Mathematical Association of America, 2010 (with Roger Nelsen)
  3. Case Studies for Quantitative Reasoning: A Casebook of Media Articles, 2nd Edition, Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009 (with Bernard Madison, Stuart Boersma, and Shannon Dingman)
  4. "Quantitative Reasoning in the Contemporary World, 3: Assessing Student Learning," Numeracy, Vol. 4, No. 2, Article 8 (2011) (with Bernard Madison, Stuart Boersma, and Shannon Dingman)
  5. "What is Quantitative Literacy?", video presentation from the Carnegie Quantway Networked Improvement Community and Statway Networked Improvement Community Summer Institute, July 25-28, 2011
  6. "The Joy of Quantitative Reasoning," Numeracy, Vol. 5, No. 1, Article 1 (2012)
  7. "MegaMenger Fractal Build," Hollins University Video (published December 9, 2014) about Caren's first year seminar on "Games, Puzzles, and Logic" in which her students participated in the MegaMenger world-wide collaborative effort to build a level 3 Menger Sponge.


  1. Prizes and Award Booklet, American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America, 2017 Joint Mathematics Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia
  2. Obituary, The Roanoke Times, April 6, 2017.
  3. Caren Diefenderfer Memoriam, National Numeracy Network website.
  4. Personal communications
  5. Mathematics Genealogy Project