Dean Knight on half a century teaching science at Sonoma Valley High School

Science teacher Dean Knight is celebrating his 50th year at Sonoma Valley High School and shows no signs of slowing down.|

You might think that after 50 years of teaching science classes at Sonoma Valley High School, Dean Knight might be a bit burned out and ready to retire.

Think again. He not only is still going strong, but also remains totally fascinated with teaching and life in general, and is eagerly seeking out new challenges.

“Dean has an incredible depth of knowledge and catalog of resources that he uses to support the department,” said Kelly O’Leary, chair of the SVHS science department. “But what I find really impressive is his willingness to learn and grow. One would think 50 years in teaching would make him closed off to new ideas, but he is quick to take on new challenges and try new things. I am so grateful to have worked with Dean and to have learned from him.”

Janet Hansen, the school’s librarian, praises Knight’s enthusiasm, saying he is always the first person to arrive at the school each day, often before 6 a.m.

“I think Dean’s work has been a big part of creating the environment we want to keep at SVHS: academic but exciting, based on curiosity, experimentation and a passion for learning,” she said.

And it doesn’t seem that he plans to retire any time soon.

“No plan,” he said. “I like everyone I work with … students, teachers, administrators and support staff. And I still find my topics interesting and challenging to teach.”

Knight received the District-Wide Technology Award this year for his use of new technologies during distance and hybrid learning. The award states that he was nominated by his peers “for your outstanding perseverance in continually adapting your program to utilize the latest necessary digital platforms. You inspire us all with your continued growth and commitment.”

The SVHS library is putting together a display dedicated to him that includes an article about “Sonoma’s Mad Scientist” in the Dragons’ Tale (the school newspaper) from the 1970s as well as items from school yearbooks and possibly some of Knight’s own artifacts.

Knight, who teaches physics, AP physics and chemistry, said that navigating through changes is a never-ending process.

“Everything changes, so I am always deciding what I want to keep and what I want to go with,” he said. “Of course, the technology has changed a bit. I taught slide rule when I first came here. I remember changing our grading system from handwriting everything to using computers.

“When I first arrived, I took students to UC Berkeley to use the Lawrence Hall of Science’s computers to introduce them to this technology. Eight years later, we had our own computer lab set up in the science building.”

Forging a career as a science teacher

Knight’s interest in science was first sparked as a fourth-grade student in Castro Valley. He became intrigued with astronomy and even built an observatory for a homemade, 6-inch reflecting telescope on top of his father’s shop.

His interest in science grew, eventually leading to an undergraduate degree in physics in 1966 from a joint program offered by Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Washington, and Stanford University. Knight then received a three-year fellowship to attend UC Berkeley’s nuclear engineering department, but stayed for six years, receiving a master’s degree while also serving in teaching positions at Lawrence Hall of Science during the summers.

“During the school year, I also became a graduate teaching assistant for an interdisciplinary science course for undergraduates, which developed my interest in teaching younger college students,” he said.

After obtaining his teaching credential from Berkeley, Knight applied to Sonoma and one other school district.

“My first introduction to the area came when I was heading back from a beach party at UC’s Marine Biology Lab,” he said. “We headed to Little Switzerland in El Verano. I liked this community and that has not changed.”

During his remarkable career at SVHS, Knight has inspired thousands of teachers and students — including 1980 graduate Charles Marcus, professor at the prestigious Niels Bohr Institute at University of Copenhagen. He also has compiled a steady stream of teaching awards and notable accomplishments, such as collaborations with Russian physicists and NASA space shuttle projects.

For five years in the 1990s, Knight brought his students to Moscow, where they visited the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy the first two years and participated in the Russian space program with People to People Youth Science Exchange the last three years.

He has helped to develop the ecology, electronics and astronomy clubs at SVHS. Knight also works with and gives tours of the radio telescope at Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, has given presentations for prominent scientific organizations and has worked to develop connections with Ukraine through the Sister Cities International program.

An engaging role model for students

While students have been drawn to his knowledge and wisdom, they have been equally captivated by his unique style and somewhat eccentric personality.

“Dean is a great model for our students,” Hansen said. “He has his own individual style and interests, and is totally comfortable with himself. Also, he is freakishly tireless in his enthusiasm and passion for science and teaching.”

Leslie McLean, a SVHS alumna and English teacher, added, “He made being a nerd cool. The ham radio kids, the astronomy kids, the pocket-pen kids … he gave them standing.”

O’Leary said that one of the highlights of her experiences with Knight has been the Physics Olympics event he holds each spring.

“Students design devices to overcome engineering challenges,” O’Leary said. “The most impressive is the egg drop. Students need to design a case, using limited materials, that can protect an egg from breaking when dropped. Dean asks the fire department to bring one of their trucks to campus, the firefighters extend the ladder to full height and then they drop the eggs and containers from the top of the ladder. Remarkably, the students’ engineering often keeps the eggs safe!”

Hansen’s son, Kristian Hansen, put the importance of the Physics Olympics events in perspective.

“Kristian said that getting an ‘A’ in AP Physics was nice, but winning the Mousetrap Car Challenge was a lifetime achievement!” she said. “I also remember that for several years, Mr. Knight involved students in a project that gathered data from the MIR Space Station [the Soviet/Russian station that orbited the Earth from 1986 to 2001], so kids were gathering with teachers, staying up all night and hiking around to pick up information from the space station, which created a lot of excitement at school around science.”

That mysterious machine

Rumor has it that Knight has a time machine in his backroom at the school.

“Anything could be in there,” Hansen said. “When you see it, you will know. Plus, how can he always be at school, yet be known to have a full life outside?”

O’Leary added, “I’ve heard the time machine rumor, but I’ve been in the backroom and I think the reality is even more exciting. He has radio telescopes, glowing rocks, primordial soup reaction products and so much more. I have borrowed many of Dean’s gadgets to help teach my classes and think his collection should be cataloged and saved as a museum.”

Knight started teaching at SVHS the year after Hansen graduated, but her siblings and children were in his classes.

“One of the first programs I loaded onto a computer was SETI@home, where individual PCs could help process data from radio telescopes,” she said. “My kids came home and said Mr. Knight told them they could sign up to help look for extraterrestrial signals, and we ran that thing for years.

“Also, our deck rails in winter were always covered with little baggies full of rain that Mr. Knight wanted for monitoring the water content.”

Despite Knight’s deep passion for science and teaching, his colleagues have found a way to pull him away from them, if only temporarily.

“Mr. Knight is famous for his love of a good doughnut,” Hansen said. “He can be lured out of the classroom to participate in activities that he might otherwise avoid if doughnuts are on offer.”

The library is working with student leadership to plan a school celebration of Knight the week of May 23-27.

“I don’t know yet what all the activities will be, but ‘Dress Like Mr. Knight’ is high on the possibilities list, since his dress style — traditional khaki slacks, wrinkle-free striped Oxford shirt, large white athletic shoes and stylish wire-frame glasses — is very recognizable,” Hansen said. “Participants in the contest will receive prize doughnuts!”

The bug that keeps on going

Knight is also known for driving the same VW bug he received as a college graduation gift more than 55 years ago.

“Whether I have preserved it is probably a matter of perspective,” Knight said. “I did replace the bottom of it several years back. I was watching the road pass by looking down!”

Hansen noted that after school, the car is often parked at the Church Mouse thrift shop as Knight searches for useful treasures.

McLean recalled one of her first experiences of the VW bug, which occurred when she was a child and Knight was renting a little studio apartment from her family on Fifth Street East.

“He was brand new at the high school and of course, he had the same VW bug,” she said. “One day, it caught fire and he rushed into my young mother’s kitchen in a panic. She told him he should throw some baking soda on it. They did, and the fire went out. Science problem solved!

“My brother and his best friend used to shoot arrows at his tires when he drove by, but Dean quickly put a stop to that!”

Many people would probably be surprised to hear that Knight (along with his wife, Gay) is also an active ethnic dancer, but then again, nothing seems to really surprise people about him anymore.

His interest in ethnic dance developed while attending PLU, but he got much more deeply involved in it at the International House at UC Berkeley.

“I arrived and got hooked — every Friday night for seven years,” he said. “It really is physics — my guess pattern recognition, as well as torque, angular velocity, rotational inertia and everything else. Now I go to Greek festivals, Bulgarian festivals, Reel & Brand, Muscardini Cellars, Sebastiani’s, HopMonk and the prom.”

His folk dancing has become a part of SVHS lore.

“Our sports teams do a dance at a schoolwide rally,” Hansen said. “Usually, the dances are pretty standard pop, but one year the track team had Mr. Knight teach them a whole folk dance. He rehearsed with them and they all did a great performance at the rally.”

Perhaps McLean best summarizes Knight’s unique charm, style and unflagging dedication to SVHS with this observation.

“I admire Dean for never getting tired of teaching and for the epic Xeroxing he has done for decades,” she said. “Just never get in line behind him on the copy machine!”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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