Ten Years at Ten Strands: Transforming Environmental Student Learning in California

By Karen Cowe|January 4, 2023

The last time I wrote an article for the Ten Strands blog was during the days leading to the summer solstice. I was in Scotland visiting family, and the focus of the article was my statement of purpose—a piece on why I chose the work we do at Ten Strands as my professional focus. The rest of our team also wrote statements of purpose during 2022. You can view them on our team page. Andra Yeghoian will be writing hers in January, so look out for that. 

I just re-read my statement of purpose, and I can see the extra light during those long summer days put me in an expansive mood. Today, I’m back in Scotland, and I’m writing this on the winter solstice. Sunrise was at 8:45 a.m., and the sun will set at 3:42 p.m., just six hours, fifty-five minutes, and fifty-five seconds of daylight. It’s not the light I’m focused on, though; it’s the quiet winter darkness I’m drawn to and within it the opportunity to reflect on ten years at Ten Strands. 

I’ll get to our “Top Ten” accomplishments later in the article, but as I sit here, it’s the little things that first come to mind. For example, my first meeting with Will Parish, Ten Strands founder, in Pied Piper Bar & Lounge at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. We sat under the Maxfield Parrish painting, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and talked about Will’s vision for his new nonprofit. He had copies of the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum with him, and I had a copy of a book called Living by Chemistry to demonstrate to Will I knew something about publishing innovative instructional materials. There we were, sitting under a $5 million painting, living it up in San Francisco, poring over textbooks rather than drinks.

Karen and Will meeting outside at a Stanford Social Innovation Review workshop in late 2014.

I also remember setting up the office. Will and our dear colleague Ariel Lew Ai Le Whitson painted the walls with whiteboard paint, and Ariel and I went to Ikea to select office chairs, which we built just in time for our first board meeting—with fingers crossed we’d tightened the screws sufficiently. Those chairs are still there and holding, but they rarely get used in these post-pandemic days. It was easier in the earlier years to be more spontaneous, and I remember many walking meetings in the Presidio and nearby places and a good number of days “brainstorming” on Will’s boat in the San Francisco Bay. 

Ten Strands staff and consultants during one of our “brainstorming” meetings on the San Francisco Bay in early 2014.

A few years later, when we were asked by Tom Torlakson, the then state superintendent of public instruction, to lead the implementation of the state’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, our network grew exponentially. I have many fond memories of gatherings in Sacramento with the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee, which later became the California Environmental Literacy Initiative. My favorite meetings during that time were the California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) network meetings hosted by Celeste Royer at Rancho El Chorro residential outdoor school. Multiple times, about forty of us spent a few days together at “Rancho” and forged relationships that I continue to depend on every day. The reason those meetings were so special to me is we were able to spend a lot of time outdoors, and a conversation by a gently flowing creek will always be more memorable to me than a conversation at a conference table.

A CREEC Network convening at Rancho El Chorro in early 2017.

Current Ten Strands team members are located all over California, so coming together requires careful planning. We’re committed to meeting face-to-face at least twice a year in a location where we can spend time outdoors as much as possible. Earlier this year, we gathered in Southern California so we could work and play together. One night, we cooked a meal and shared our cultural heritage through food. We had dishes from India, Ecuador, Mexico, the American Midwest, and Scotland. No, I did not prepare haggis, but I do believe a wee dram was involved. At our latest retreat in Northern California, one of our newest members, Roni Jones, led us through a contemplative exercise where we created nature alters. It was fun being a wood nymph for a little while. 

I could go on, of course, because there are so many of these moments, but I’ll shift now and share the accomplishments I’m most proud of. I’ve restricted myself to one per year, which was really hard to do! (For details on this year’s accomplishments, you can read our new annual report, and prior year reports can be found here.) 

Karen’s Top Ten from the First Ten Years 

(1) Education and the Environment Initiative Curriculum (2013)

Our first state agency relationship was with the Office of Education and the Environment (OEE) at CalRecycle. We partnered with OEE to promote and distribute the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum to California teachers. During the partnership, we supported over thirty-three thousand teachers, in almost six thousand California schools, and delivered over thirteen million lessons. Ten years later, the EEI Curriculum is still used by teachers throughout California, and teachers can access it for free on our site here

(2) Environmental Principles and Concepts (2014)

We started a highly productive, multiyear relationship with Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Lieberman from the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER). The focus of this work was to bring to the fore California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs). The EP&Cs are big environmental ideas that support students’ deep understanding of the interdependence of natural systems and human social systems. As a result of the partnership with SEER, the EP&Cs are integrated into content frameworks in science, history-social science, health, and arts, and they will be included in the upcoming math framework. I think of the EP&Cs as the cornerstone of our work, and I’m incredibly grateful to Jerry for his thought leadership and partnership. 

(3) Blueprint for Environmental Literacy (2015)

In September 2015, the Department of Education published the state’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy. We were proud to be one of the funders of the Blueprint and to participate in its writing as a member of the Environmental Literacy Task Force. We also supported a lively launch party in the Presidio and committed to supporting the Blueprint’s implementation.

(4) California Environmental Literacy Initiative (2016)

In January 2016, we launched the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee (ELSC) to implement the ideas in the Blueprint. We provided backbone support to ELSC for three years, and in 2019, when the then state superintendent of public instruction termed out, we re-launched the effort as a public-private collective action network and re-branded it as the California Environmental Literacy Initiative. My sincere thanks goes to everyone who has contributed to this initiative over the last seven years, and especially to co-chairs Craig Strang, Will Parish, Emily Schell, Andra Yeghoian, and Juanita Chan. I’m also grateful for the support provided by Ten Strands staff. 

(5) Campaign for the California Regional Environmental Education Community Network (2017)

We launched our first advocacy campaign and secured $4 million from the legislature to support the scale-up of the California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) network. We were certainly novices at advocacy, and I greatly appreciate the mentoring and support we received from Ten Strands advisory board member Leslie Tamminen and Steve Baker from Aaron Read and Associates. This was also the first time we partnered with Senator Ben Allen and his staff. 

(L-R) Will Parish, Karen Cowe, Rebecca Vyduna, Juanita Chan-Roden, Ariel Lew Ai Le Whitson, and Candice Dickens-Russell advocating for the CREEC Network in early 2017.

(6) Campaign to Add EP&Cs and Ideas in Blueprint to Education Code (2018)

Emboldened by our success in 2017, we launched another campaign to sponsor a bill (SB 720) both to codify the EP&Cs as the state’s definition of environmental literacy and to incorporate the big ideas from the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy in the Education Code. Importantly (as you’ll see later), we were able to add climate change and environmental justice to the list of topics covered by the EP&Cs. We were delighted to, again, work with Senator Allen and his staff. The bill was signed into law by Governor Brown in September 2018, during his Global Climate Action Summit. 

(7) Environmental Literacy and Climate Change Literacy Projects (2019)

At the Global Climate Action Summit, while hosting an education affiliate event at the Exploratorium, we met Dr. Ram Ramanathan, a preeminent climate scientist. He challenged us to support the education of a “million climate warriors.” Our early conversations with Ram led to the launch of the Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Projects (ECCLPs). The first ECCLPs event, a call to action for the schools of education within the UC and CSU systems, was held at UCLA in 2019, and the re-launch (after a hiatus due to the pandemic) was held at UCI in September 2022. Thank you Ram for the inspiration! 

(8) National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative (2020)

In partnership with Green Schoolyards America, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and the San Mateo County Office of Education, we launched the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. This initiative was our “pandemic response.” We were motivated by the severe inequities in the education system that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Together, with many other partners, we created an extensive resource library to support schools to move learning outdoors during the pandemic and beyond. Here’s a short op-ed we wrote for The Hechinger Report and a link to the extensive press coverage we received. 

(9) Campaign to Create Resources Focused on Climate Change and Environmental Justice (2021)

We, again, partnered with Senator Allen and his staff and secured $6 million from the legislature to support the creation of curricular resources focused on climate change and environmental justice. We are working in partnership with the San Mateo County Office of Education, the California Department of Education, community writing teams, and subject matter experts to create these free open education resources for California teachers and students. Information about the Climate Change and Environmental Justice Program (CCEJP) can be found here

(10) Growth and Development of the Ten Strands Team (2022)

I’m reserving this year’s slot for our team; you can read all about the current team here. We grew by 50 percent this year when Roni Jones joined us to lead CCEJP and shortly thereafter Jeffrey Dowling to work on the same project. We were also delighted to add Andra Yeghoian to lead four of our initiatives, including taking us into new territory. Finally, just a few months ago, Marwa Abdelghani joined us as our communications manager. I’m thrilled to be working with our new team members and to have them join their talented colleagues to advance our mission. 

Finally, the progress we’ve made over the last ten years would not have been possible without the generous support of our board, advisory board, former employees,  partners, and donors. It’s been quite a journey. I feel grateful, and I’m eager to see what unfolds in the years ahead. 

With only a few hours of light left on this very short day, I wish you all a Happy New Year. I’ll leave you with this lovely poem, “To Know the Dark,” by Wendell Berry. 

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Karen Cowe
This article was written by Karen Cowe

Karen Cowe is an education-industry executive with over 30 years of experience in sales and fund development, marketing, program design, professional learning, business development, and operations. Prior to joining Ten Strands, she was president and chief executive officer of Key Curriculum Press, an innovative and award-winning K–12 STEM publisher. Before that, she was managing director of Burlington Books in Athens, Greece—the first publisher in Greece to offer locally-focused English language instructional materials for Greek students. In addition to her understanding of the complexities of the US education landscape, she has valuable insights into education in other nations, having built relationships in Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Karen holds a bachelor in business and a minor in education from Saint John’s College, York and a master of business administration from Saint Mary’s College, California.


  • Kirk Amato

    I am truly inspired and impressed with all the hard work and remarkable accomplishments. I am just a worker bee, but from the highest mountain, I proclaim “Hail to the Queen”.

  • Chris Grant-Bear

    What an inspiring tale of progress and diversity, Karen. Your principles and beliefs in the values of learning have resulted in an impressive ten years of progress. Well done! Congratulations!