January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

One summer day two years ago a couple of teenagers were hanging out at the waterfront Sun and Sail Club in Lake Forest, Calif., musing about math. “I just said, like, ‘I wonder if anybody could write an impossible puzzle that no one could solve,’ ” recalls Erik Engstrom, 17. “That set Jason off. It gave him something to do for the next two years.”

So it was that Jason Robert labored after school, on weekends and holidays to create the 18 treacherous math problems that comprise The Lab Puzzle Book, published by him and Engstrom last August. “I sat there for a year doing all these puzzles,” says Robert, 17, a straight-A senior at El Toro High School. “I saw how it made me more creative and I thought, ‘How can I get these to the most people possible?’ ” The solution: He and Engstrom—who tried out the puzzles and edited the text—collected $1,000 in donations from businesses and used the proceeds to mail the book free to schools, with the goal of reaching every public high school in the U.S. They have sent copies to 737 in California.

At Maria Carillo High School in Santa Rosa, for example, students can earn extra credit for solving the problems. “The kids are intrigued that they are written by high school students like themselves,” says math department head Douglas Gray.

Robert, son of a real-estate broker father and a dental-office worker mother, hopes to become a mathematician. Engstrom, whose father is an engineer and mother a school cafeteria worker, wants to be an entrepreneur. Whatever they do, “we’re going to hear about them again,” predicts their school guidance counselor Paul Kelly. That figures.

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