Last night at the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards, Dean Kamen delivered the most eloquent appeal for getting kids interested in science and technology I’ve yet seen.

His remarks took the form of his acceptance speech for the Leadership Award. He was speaking off the cuff, but this is something he’s been thinking about and actively working on for the last twenty years.

“This biggest problem this country has is a cultural problem,” he told the gathered award winners and guests. The problem as he sees it is that we idolize entertainers and sports figures instead of “things that matter.”

“We will make clean energy for everybody,” he said, “for the six billion people. We will bring into reality all the things that we’re now talking about. But to really make that happen, to dramatically increase the odds of that happening, the first thing that we need to do is mobilize way, way, way more kids to really embrace what is on the pages of Popular Mechanics.”

Who’s telling kids, particularly women and minorities and inner city kids around the united states, ‘these other things, they’re fun, they’re pastimes, you know, but the probability you’ll ever make money in sports is way lower than the probability you’ll win the state lottery? If you want to develop a muscle, how about trying to exercise the one between your ears? Besides, thinking is the only sport where humans play in the unlimited category. I mean, you think that football player’s big and tough, put an elephant on the field. You think that track star is fast, put a gazelle on the field.’

That’s why Kamen has developed robotics as a contact sport for students, called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Meantime, Kamen’s company, DEKA Research, and all the other award winners brought their inventions to show off–including, yes, this flying car by Steve Saint parked in front of PM headquarters, the Hearst Tower.

One of the demos was hands on; I got to try out the future of video games, Project Natal. It’s a system, built for the Xbox 360, that uses the human body as the input device. No more mashing painful little chicklet buttons in arcane combinations to punch, fly, shoot, or whatever. I drove a video game car simply by making steering motions with my hands and thrusting my foot forward to operate an imaginary gas pedal. It’s the iPhone of the video game world, and it will instantly render all other systems obsolete.