For 22 years Steve Randak, a science and biology teacher at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Ind., had issued the same challenge to his students: Write out every number from 1 to 1,000,000 and you get an automatic A. For 22 years no student had risen to Randak’s challenge. And then along came Charles Hunter, age 15, freshman, innovator, one-in-a-million student.
“They usually get up to a couple hundred and quit,” says Randak of the generations of students crunched by the numbers. Randak issues the challenge as part of a classroom discussion on the age of the earth, estimated at 4.5 billion years. “The idea,” says Randak, “is to make them realize big numbers are hard to comprehend.” He estimates that it would take a student 200 days at eight hours a day to write down all the numbers.
At first, Hunter, the son of a doctor and a nursery school teacher, tried it the old-fashioned way—with a pencil. He got up to about 5,000. “My hand was cramping,” he says, “so I trashed it.” So Hunter adopted a different approach, one a little more modern. He sat down at his Commodore 64 computer and devised a program that would do the work for him. The printing, on an Okidata 120 printer, turned out to be the biggest part of the job. It took 140 hours to print out all the numbers on 2,400 pages, which weighed 50 pounds.
Then, one morning last December, Hunter had the satisfaction of walking into class and springing his printouts on a startled Randak. “My mouth fell open and I started laughing,” says Randak, 44, whose other creative educational exercises include dressing up like Galileo for astronomy lectures and like scientist Gregor Mendel to talk about genetics. “I try to get kids’ attention and teach them to think, which is what Charles did. He had the interest and creativity to figure it out and do it.”
Since Hunter was, unsurprisingly, already an A student—and since the challenge technically was to write out the numbers—Randak compromised and awarded Hunter an extra half grade point on his final exam.
For Hunter, who hopes to become an aeronautics engineer, there was additional vindication. “My mom says it’s the only thing I’ve ever completed,” he says. “I’ve been trying to paint my room for two years.”