By. Karen Cowe, CEO of Ten Strands


I’m in San Mateo, California at the County Office of Education. Actually, I’m in the parking lot watching teams of teachers observing connections between natural systems and human social systems as they prepare to create environment-based Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) units of study. Specifically, they’re at the Redwood Shores Lagoon which provides visual aesthetics to the area and a unique aquatic habitat. The lagoon also serves as a stormwater retention pond, storing surface runoff during periods of high tide in the San Francisco Bay. The area is home to technology companies like Oracle, Electronic Arts, and Nintendo. A perfect place for teachers to explore California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts.


Back inside the STEM Center, this year’s cohort began generating questions about the phenomena they had seen, natural and human made. They developed essential questions based on their observations in their local environment—they were engaged, curious, and doing science.


Funded by the Sand Hill Foundation, the San Mateo County Office of Education, the S.H. Cowell Foundation, the Morgan Family Foundation, and in partnership with State Education and Environment Roundtable, we launched the first San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative (SM ELC) in 2015. This year marked our third year, and we worked with over 60 K–8 teachers from in and around San Mateo County. During the institute, teachers began creating NGSS- and project-based units of study focused on environmental phenomena that they will teach in their classrooms during the 2017–18 school year. Over the three days of the institute, teachers partnered with local environmental education providers—including Marine Science Institute, Project WET, Project Learning Tree, the Office of Education and the Environment, Pie Ranch, Hidden Villa, and The Office of Sustainability, San Mateo—who shared their science expertise and resources and offered advice on integrating hands-on, field-based activities into the units. SM ELC culminates in a capstone event in January, where the teachers reconvene to share challenges, successes, and (best of all!) the student work that emerged from implementing the units in their classrooms.


At Ten Strands, our mission is to build and strengthen the partnerships and strategies that will bring environmental literacy to all of California’s K–12 students. In 2015, we realized that one of the most pressing needs for teachers was NGSS professional learning. This presented an opportunity to show teachers how to use the environment as an effective and impactful tool for teaching science. Over the three years of SM ELC, we’ve learned that there is high demand from teachers for this kind of professional learning. Teachers consistently report that the students’ local environment is an engaging, relevant, and highly effective context for teaching science. They regularly demonstrate that, through these lessons, their students begin to feel a connection to and a responsibility for their local environment. As a result of teacher response and SM ELC’s impact, the San Mateo County Office of Education has recently hired an environmental literacy specialist.


source: Ten Strands


“The power of SM ELC is that it helps educators connect with something they already know but have been out of touch with—the magic and magnetism of doing science in the real world. Through experiential science rooted in environmental literacy, teachers re-energize their own passion for teaching science and learn about the way the NGSS can support purposeful, worthwhile learning experiences for their students.” – Rebecca Vyduna, STEM Center Director, San Mateo County Office of Education


Alongside this work, Ten Strands leads Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s Environmental Literacy Steering Committee. I serve as Project Director, and Will Parish (Ten Strands Founder and President) and Craig Strang (Lawrence Hall of Science Associate Director) serve as Co-chairs. The Committee is focused on implementing the strategies in California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy that support the 300,000 public school teachers in California, the 6.2 million students they teach, and the thousands of nonformal education providers and community-based organizations contributing expertise and resources to their communities. Integrating environmental literacy into district goals tied to California’s new standards and connecting districts to local environmental education providers is a top priority for the Steering Committee. The San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative and other pilot projects across the state are providing success stories and demonstrating best practices as they continue to evolve.


“We’ve found that SM ELC provides a great model for helping teachers incorporate NGSS and environmental literacy into the instructional program through developing units that engage students in the local environment of their schools and communities. SM ELC can easily be duplicated anywhere in California—all that’s needed are teachers who are ready to bring NGSS and environmental literacy to life in their classrooms, students who are eager to learn about the unique environmental characteristics of their schools and neighborhoods, and local partners who are eager to share their knowledge and expertise.” – Anne Campbell, SMCOE Superintendent and Environmental Literacy Steering Committee Member


As demand for this type of professional learning from teachers continues to grow, and California’s new education landscape provides opportunities for environmental literacy to thrive, the Steering Committee hopes to capitalize on this unique moment in time to help ensure that all students have access to meaningful, culturally-relevant learning experiences that equip them with the knowledge, awareness, and ability to make decisions that promote health and well-being for themselves and their communities.


Author Bio

Karen Cowe, CEO of nonprofit Ten Strands, is an education-industry executive with over 25 years of experience in sales, marketing, professional development, business development, and operations. She most recently acted as President and CEO at Key Curriculum Press. She has worked with curriculum leaders and teachers to introduce innovative, inquiry-based math and science instructional materials and learning tools to students. Karen combines her deep personal interest in environmental stewardship and place-based education with her education industry experience.