Dylan Viale enjoys spending time with his grandmother, taking walks together and BART trips to the city.

And, the Martinez youth loves video games.

Until recently, while Sherry Nissen had given him Harry Potter and LEGO Star Wars games for his X-Box, the two couldn't share that activity.

Nissen is legally blind.

So, Dylan's 10-year-old mind went to work on coming up with a way for them to play, devising a computer game where blindfolded or sight-impaired participants could respond to distinctive sound cues to move through an intricate maze. And, after much trial and error, "Quacky's Quest" was created.

"I like video games and I wanted to find a way for her to experience that," he said.

So, among the potato and grapefruit batteries, tests of electrical currents, and questions about which gum flavor lasts the longest, Dylan entered his invention in the Hidden Valley School Science Fair -- and took home first prize for the fifth-grade category.

His level of empathy and innovation touched Sherry Whitmarsh, a Chevron employee who was one of the judges.

"It's very impressive that a student his age is looking to do something for someone with a special need, to do something that we take for granted, but if you have no sight, it becomes more difficult," said Whitmarsh, a Mt. Diablo Unified School District trustee whose background is in the computer sciences.

Dylan's science teacher concurred, with her own passion for raising Guide Dog puppies being a source of inspiration for Dylan's idea.

"Dylan's project tugged at my heartstrings," said Jennifer Sullivan. "I know the love he has for his grandmother. His (project) is unique."

For fourth-graders, which area of the school campus has the greatest proliferation of fungal spores to make mold on white bread grow the fastest was the first-place winner.

"I saw my name and I was so proud of myself," said Isabelle Berkowitz, 9. "By doing it, you can find out what you wanted to learn."

She learned that the cleanest spots included her desk and the school lunch table -- and the girls' bathroom was surprisingly more of a breeding ground than the boys'.

Isabelle's exhibit of Zip-Lock sealed bags of greenish bread was inspired by the boyhood efforts of her father, Russell, and Isabelle enjoyed the father/daughter bonding time.

Berkowitz' experiment roughly 20 years ago predated tight sealed bags, he recalled.

"I definitely remember the smell," he said. "It was quite close to the nose."

On this Martinez campus, Dylan and Isabelle were recognized with top prizes for their inquisitive efforts just as there's been a greater push to do the same on the national front, as President Barack Obama is urging citizens to honor young aspiring Einsteins in the same way stellar athletes are recognized -- including a visit to the White House.

Participation in the science fair affords students a greater opportunity for "that higher level of thinking," said fifth-grade teacher Diane Coventry, who coordinated the local and district science fairs, noting the state's requisite standard for proficiency in the scientific method at this grade level.

And the level of ingenuity just keeps getting higher.

"What the young minds come up with these days -- the innovative projects. They understand what they did. They bring some research to fruition and they're applying that to real science," said science fair judge Brian Bergeron, while assessing the findings of an entry that analyzed which bridge would hold the most weight.

"They didn't skew the results. They're not afraid to say (the) hypothesis was wrong, and they learned something," added Bergeron, a senior project manager for Chevron's environmental management company.

Dylan and Isabelle will be among the students from the estimated two dozen schools whose experiments will be exhibited at the district fair this Saturday.

And when it's all over, Coventry wants students to have had fun in the process.

"I want them to continue to be curious about life and how things work," she said.

if you go
WHAT: Mt. Diablo Unified School District science far
WHEN: 9-11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 3
WHERE: Willow Creek Center, 1026 Mohr Lane, Concord