By Haley McKinnon, CLA Student Writer - November 1, 2023

“How can we be inspired by the ocean?” Nicole von Germeten asks. 

After almost 20 years as a professor in history, including five as the director of the School of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, von Germeten is now an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), and the lead program administrator for the new Marine Studies (MAST) undergraduate degree. Housed in CLA, MAST is “an interdisciplinary major that explores the dynamic relationship between humans and the marine environment.” The major has just entered its third full year this fall, with plans to launch an online minor in summer 2024. MAST offers an innovative program for students to experience a variety of ways of knowing about the oceans.

Marine Studies Degree Offers New Approach to Environmental Learning

Understanding MAST

MAST is a unique opportunity for both faculty and students at OSU, focusing not on the marine sciences like oceanography or marine biology, but on the human dimensions of ocean and marine systems, with classes that range from focusing on public policy to sparking creative and spiritual connections to the ocean. Making that distinction, says von Germeten, has been one of the more challenging parts of implementing the program. “When you have a degree called ‘studies,’ we’re always talking about interdisciplinarity,” says von Germeten. “This can be challenging as all ‘studies’ degrees have innovative  ways of bringing disciplines together.” 

Nearly all schools within CLA contribute to the MAST curriculum. Another interdisciplinary degree - ethnic studies - plays a central role in shaping MAST. While the MAST major traditionally caters to undergraduates with a humanities interest, science students will soon find that minoring in MAST helps them expand their understanding of what it means to interact with the ocean. Ultimately, MAST’s curriculum can complement OSU’s existing science-oriented, coastal programs, connecting people, research, and the coast together.

Convening Interdisciplinary Faculty

The program currently has a small but efficient faculty. In addition to her administrative role, von Germeten also teaches Maritime Histories of the Pacific, 1400-1800 (HST 314), which looks at the connections between the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands in the critical centuries of global expansion. Along with teaching and mentoring in the new history master’s program, which began under her leadership in fall of 2021, she provides oversight in two required courses every term: MAST majors’ internships in MAST 410, and their independent capstone projects in MAST 425. The degree also depends on Lori Cramer, MAST assistant director and long-time sociology professor, and Cynthia Leonard, undergraduate academic advisor and advisor for OSU’s campus-wide marine club Ocean11

MAST coursework draws on faculty from a variety of fields to round out the curriculum, lending to the inherent transdisciplinary nature of the program. It is one of von Germeten’s goals to expand on the core faculty by hiring a writer/marine studies specialist to teach a newly-developed MAST-specific Writing Intensive Curriculum (WIC) class, which is part of OSU's Baccalaureate Core requirements.

A One-of-a-Kind Experience for Faculty and Students

There are only a handful of programs like MAST in the country, and the new online minor launching next year will be the first of its kind, eventually building to an online major. Cramer has been responsible for developing some of the coursework, having previously built other degree programs on campus. Beginning her 30th year teaching environmental sociology at OSU, and with research focused on coastal systems and coastal community resilience, Cramer felt it was a natural fit when the opportunity to get involved with the MAST program arose.

“This was a really cool opportunity to see a program develop with such a fascinating and needed interest around the human dimensions of ocean and marine systems,” Cramer says. “We have wonderful oceanographers and natural scientists, but when we’re talking about issues around the ocean it’s the people; whether it’s the people who are contributing to the plastic pollution, or coastal tourists, or all the other dimensions from economics to arts. [MAST] brings everything together in a very unique way.”

Cramer has worked with faculty across the university to create the degree, as well as liasoning with the OSU Marine Studies Initiative. “We didn’t want to just hope we would build it and they would come,” she says. The identity of the program arose from asking what was needed for coastal and marine systems in today’s world, and creating curriculum “driven by a demonstrated need and desire to bring that human and social dimension together, and knowing that our students would have opportunities to contribute in ways that combined their passion for marine and coastal systems, and the environment in general, to make a difference,” says Cramer. 

Both administrators are ambitious about wanting what’s best for students, focusing on accessibility and streamlining, creating a support network, offering experiential learning opportunities, and developing careers after graduation. Von Germeten is always looking outward, starting a new initiative of inviting in speakers from well-established programs around the country in an effort to make MAST part of the network of cutting-edge transdisciplinary programs. Visits to OSU by humanities-based marine studies interdisciplinary and globally-focused scholars will be funded by the Center for the Humanities, which von Germeten currently administers. 

“Especially in the liberal arts, we don't often offer as many majors as we’d like that are readily applied, and MAST has some real applied, tangible components that provide students the opportunity to get their hands dirty – experiential learning and being able to make a difference from the get-go,” says Cramer. They are always looking to expand and offer greater flexibility, and Cramer is also working on building internship and experiential learning opportunities, hoping for paid options for students as well as a cohesive package for students to complete a term or more at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. 

Currently, enrollment in MAST sits at about 90 students, give or take. Summer engagement through START (OSU’s orientation program for incoming students) has helped boost numbers, with the highest number of new students coming in for fall 2023 than in previous years. Excitement is growing, slowly but surely, and the addition of the minor next year will be a huge step towards accessibility for all students. “It will help students across campus incorporate human dimensions to their existing degrees. Somebody who is doing integrative biology or ocean engineering will be able to couple that with a minor in MAST so they can have the best of both worlds,” says Cramer of the minor. “I think that complement is going to be hugely important. It’s going to be pretty powerful.” Cramer recognizes that, more and more, agencies and policy makers are looking for people who have not just technical skills, but an understanding of the complexities of people in science and policy – MAST can offer that understanding to students, no matter who they are. Some MAST students are interested in surfing, conservation, energy development, tourism, management, recreation – and all of those things have a human dimension. “If you have an interest or passion around issues related to the ocean or marine systems in any way, from policy to arts to music, this is a great major for that. If people like camping, hiking, beachcombing, you name it, we can create a way to carve out that passion to give you a way to use it going forward,” says Cramer.

Looking to the future, MAST only has room to grow. With new courses being added, new experiential learning opportunities being developed, and steadily growing enrollment, the program is coming in on the cutting edge of what’s possible not just in education, but in human relationships to the environment.