Ten Strands Empowers California’s Schools to Educate Tomorrow’s Environmental Leaders

While climate change and environmental instability will impact people of all ages in the coming years, our planet’s youngest citizens will shoulder the heaviest burdens. As the environment influences nearly all of today’s pursuits — from the stories we tell to the chemicals we use in labs to the products we create, consume, and throw away — providing young students with an education that incorporates environmental literacy has never been more important.

Ten Strands is a California–based nonprofit established in 2012. Their mission is to build and strengthen the partnerships and strategies that will bring environmental literacy to all of California’s K–12 public school students. They operate with a small, diverse, and nimble staff and strategic partners throughout the state. Ten Strands utilizes the largest and most diverse institution in California—the public school system—to impact 58 county offices of education, more than 1,000 school districts, approximately 10,000 individual schools, over 300,000 teachers, and 5.8 million children.

Bioneers talked to Karen Cowe, the CEO of Ten Strands, about the start of the nonprofit organization and her personal journey toward merging her interest in the environment with her professional life.

Bioneers: Tell us a little bit about the beginnings of Ten Strands.

Karen: Ten Strands was founded in mid-2012 by Will Parish. I first met Will in November of that year and joined him to launch Ten Strands in January 2013 fully. You can read my ten-year reflection here, which includes our origin story. When Will founded Ten Strands, he was finishing up a decade of teaching at Gateway High School in San Francisco. In 2009, the State Board of Education (SBE) appointed him to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC). The IQC is responsible for advising the SBE on matters related to curriculum and instruction. In 2009, the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum was evaluated by the IQC, and Will taught many units in his school as a pilot teacher in both environmental science and civics. The IQC recommended to the SBE that it approve the EEI Curriculum for use in all schools, which it did in 2010. The EEI Curriculum is a model curriculum that demonstrates to teachers how to integrate California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) into standards-based instruction, with a focus on science and history-social science. Will was eager to see it used all over California, but he couldn’t see how that was going to happen unless he established a nonprofit to work in partnership with the state agency responsible for disseminating the curriculum. He founded Ten Strands to partner with the Office of Education and the Environment at CalRecycle (a branch of CalEPA) and later worked closely with the California Department of Education. 

Karen Cowe

As Will was getting started working with the Office of Education and the Environment, I was finishing up a long-term commitment to a STEM publishing company. I was the CEO of an innovative math and science education company based in Emeryville, California, and we had just sold the company to McGraw Hill Education. During the transition of the company to McGraw Hill, I had time to think about what I wanted to do next. I was eager to stay in the education sector, and I was also interested in seeing if I could move my personal interest in the environment closer to my professional life. I was exploring this intersection of education and the environment when I was introduced to Will. We often talk about the serendipity of that moment. 

By the time we launched Ten Strands, I had already spent over 20 years working with teachers in the UK, Greece, and the US to introduce them to locally published, engaging, student-centered, place-based instructional materials, so our first initiative at Ten Strands was a very natural fit for me. However, only representing one curriculum wasn’t enough for me, and I said to Will very early on that I needed to make sure there was more we could take on for greater impact. I won’t go into the details here, but in my ten-year reflection I list our top ten accomplishments, so there clearly was plenty to do! 

We didn’t particularly think about this at the time, but on reflection, it was a good time to launch Ten Strands because California had adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in 2013, and there is a lot of content in the standards related to the environment, including climate change. Also, California was in the process of revising a number of content frameworks in the few years after we started Ten Strands. Through a partnership with Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Lieberman from the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER), we were able to integrate California’s EP&Cs into five frameworks – science, history-social science, health, art, and the upcoming math framework. Finally, the California Department of Education worked with the environmental education sector and in 2015 published the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy. Those three things combined – the promotion of the EEI Curriculum, the integration of EP&Cs into content frameworks, and the publication of the Blueprint – gave us the foundation and momentum we needed in those first few years. 

I’m not sure Will and I were the “right ones” to take it on but we were at career crossroads, interested in the intersection of education and the environment, had relevant experience, were eager to make an impact, and were willing to take a leap. There’s a quote I love by Elizabeth Alexander, “Anything can be made, any sentence begun.” I pretty much start every day with that in mind, and it was that sentiment that started Ten Strands – for me, anyway. Will and I meet every Wednesday evening for dinner. Those dinners give us a chance to reflect, look over the horizon, and feel grateful for the amazing support we’ve received over the years from our staff, board and advisory board, partners, and donors.  

Bioneers: In what ways have you seen environmental education change since Ten Strands started? 

Karen: After a publishing career focused first on English as a second language and then on mathematics, I was surprised by how small the environmental education sector felt when I first joined it. I was used to large numbers of teachers at conferences, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and giant trade show booths by publishing companies. In California, the STEAM Symposium was just getting started, and they even had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a keynote! The environmental education conferences felt a little quiet compared to my prior experience, and I did wonder if there was sufficient interest in the topic by teachers. 

Three things changed my mind. The first was a conversation with Dr. Gerald Lieberman. Jerry explained the focus of his work to me. He believed that we would never get the traction needed for education in, about, and for the environment unless we could bring these ideas closer to the day-to-day work happening in classrooms and on school campuses. Otherwise, environmental education would be relegated to an occasional field trip for some students some of the time in some places. Jerry’s work on the EP&Cs and the EEI Curriculum exemplified his approach. 

The second was the publication of the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy led by Craig Strang from the Lawrence Hall of Science and Elizabeth Babcock who, at the time, was at the California Academy of Sciences. The Blueprint provides a definition of environmental literacy that made a lot of sense to me, especially the part I’ve bolded: “An environmentally literate person has the capacity to act individually and with others to support ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable communities for present and future generations. Through lived experiences and education programs that include classroom-based lessons, experiential education, and outdoor learning, students will become environmentally literate, developing the knowledge, skills, and understanding of environmental principles to analyze environmental issues and make informed decisions.” I strongly felt that this was something I could get behind and advocate for. 

The third was the realization of the value of community-based partners to the environmental education movement. This is not something I had paid much attention to when I was focused on English and math. I first met educators working in this sector at early ChangeScale events in the Bay Area. Also, when Jerry Lieberman and I first worked with the San Mateo County Office of Education, we asked community-based partners from the region to join us to work with teachers shoulder-to-shoulder. I think intentional partnerships between teachers in the formal education system and educators in the nonformal education system can be the “secret sauce” for this work to grow and thrive in communities. 

I do think we’ve seen progress in the last ten years. We mostly experience that progress through the partnerships we’ve forged. Our main mechanism for that is the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI). CAELI is a collective action network that we’ve provided backbone support to since 2016. It was originally set up to support the implementation of the Blueprint. Within the network, we focus on capacity-building activities related to community-based partners, county offices of education, districts, equity, green and blue careers, policy, and professional learning. Also, since 2019, we’ve been working with the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems to support the Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Projects (ECCLPs). ECCLPs has adopted an upstream approach with a focus on infusing climate change education into pre-service and in-service teacher professional learning, research, and relationships with community-based partners. 

We’re fortunate to be doing this work in California where we have supportive policies related to environmental literacy within our statute from our teachers’ unions and district board policy recommendations from the California School Boards Association (CSBA). There’s no question that a lot of the current momentum and motivation is coming from concerns related to climate change. In 2021, California was the first state in the nation to commit to creating resources for teachers focused on climate change and environmental justice. Our project, the Climate Change and Environmental Justice Program (CCEJP), is now underway, and the resources will be made available for free to teachers when they’re ready.

Bioneers: Ten Strands is challenging educators and educational institutions to change and grow. How has that challenge been received? Has there been pushback?

Karen: The biggest challenge is access to instructional minutes, and it’s why, from the beginning, we’ve promoted environmental literacy as something you can integrate into standards-based instruction in the subjects you’re already teaching. The state’s model curriculum demonstrated this for science and history-social science. Also, our content frameworks give guidance on how to do this not only for science and history-social science, but also for health, arts, and mathematics. The English Language Arts (ELA) framework has not been revised yet, but we’ll focus on that, too, when it comes up. Importantly, the frameworks give guidance to publishing companies too. 

Having said that, I think this is a particularly challenging time for educators and students. The pandemic had a devastating impact on teaching and learning. At a recent PACE Conference in Sacramento, Kevin Gee, an associate professor from UC Davis, compared the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards in ELA and math in 2018-19 to 2021-22. In ELA, there were declines at every grade level with the biggest drop in third grade (6.4 percentage point decline). English learners and Black students were impacted the most. In math, again, there were declines at all grade levels with the biggest drop in eighth grade (7.4 percentage point decline). Again, English language learners and Black students were impacted the most.

Beyond academics, in that same session, Kevin shared data from the ACLU and CSU Center to Close the Opportunity Gap where, of the students surveyed in 2022, 77 percent reported experiencing a lack of motivation, 72 percent reported feeling overwhelmed, and 63 percent reported having experienced an emotional breakdown during the prior year. In answer to the question, “In the past year, where did you get help from a counselor or therapist?” 57 percent of students said “Nowhere.” 

It’s a very delicate time for educators and students. As we move forward with our plans and aspirations, it is essential for us to fully appreciate this and only ever show up in ways that demonstrate an authentic interest in the issues they are grappling with, and contribute in ways that are supportive, generative, and helpful. 

Bioneers: Which projects or initiatives are you most excited about looking ahead to the next few years?

Karen: I’m excited about all our projects because they either build on prior work and therefore further strengthen the contribution we’re making to the field, or they take us in practical new directions. We currently have six core initiatives. Three are focused on teaching and learning, two are focused on school grounds and school buildings, and one is focused on creating a dashboard to help school districts understand the current status of their “whole school sustainability” progress. You can learn about our current work on our website. Our two latest initiatives aren’t on our website yet, so I’ll describe them briefly below. 

We are partnering with UndauntedK12 to focus on decarbonizing school buildings and ensuring school buildings and grounds are resilient to support student health, safety, learning, and development in a time of rapidly increasing extreme weather. Current efforts include the launch of the Climate Ready Schools Coalition, which supports California policymakers, agencies, and district leaders to adopt, resource, and implement nation-leading policies, as well as an advocacy campaign to raise funds for a Statewide Master Plan that will coordinate county, district, and local actions to align with state decarbonization and climate resilience goals. 

Our partnership with UndauntedK12 has also resulted in the launch of the Data Initiative for Environmental and Climate Action in California’s TK–12 Schools. Currently released in beta, this database and service supports scaling implementation of environmental and climate action in California’s schools by using an equity-informed and data-driven approach. The initiative identifies key demographic indicators related to need, as well as tracks readiness and progress on high-impact leverage points for change such as school board policies, bond measures, and investments in environmental and climate initiatives and staff to lead these initiatives. 

Bioneers: What gives you hope in the work you’re doing?

Karen: I was in the room at a Bioneers conference when David Orr said, “Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.” I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s why I love the Elizabeth Alexander quote I referenced above too. It’s the action orientation in both quotes that mean the most to me. I’ve met some incredible people in the last ten years of being focused on this work. Also, there are a good number of people who were previously involved in other professions who, in the last five years or so, have quit that work to “focus on climate.” That gives me hope. Also, there are amazing teachers in classrooms and educators in community-based organizations who really do the day-to-day heavy lifting, inspiring students to learn and to care about the Earth. 

Finally, I’m grateful to all the students in California, around the country, and around the world who are creating youth-led organizations focused on climate change and environmental justice. They fill me with hope. Read the latest story we published in our Youth Voices series by Rishi Gurjar, a youth activist, here.

Bioneers: Can Bioneers readers get involved?

Karen: As an advocacy organization, we often seek letters of support to advance our work. It would be great if we could reach out to the Bioneers community during those times. Also, if anything we’re doing seems relevant to the Bioneers community, it would be great to be able to share that through your network. We’re 100 percent philanthropy run, so a donation would be much appreciated too! Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates, and check out the stories our friends and partners share about the work they do in environmental education.

I’ll end by saying I’m a huge fan of Bioneers, and I attended my first of many conferences as far back as 2001. Thank you for everything you do.

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