So what does a fun-filled event for kids have to do with Iowa's long-term workforce needs? Quite a bit actually.

Winneshiek County Development Inc. is joining an array of other agencies in sponsorship of a Thursday, March 14, event titled the Northeast Iowa Family STEM Festival. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.)

The festival on NICC's Calmar campus will run from 4 to 7:30 p.m. at the Wilder Business Center and is geared primarily for students in grades 4 through 8 and their parents.

So what is the purpose of the Family STEM Festival?

It is hoped that providing young students with hands-on and interactive science, technology, engineering and mathematics activities will peak their interest in STEM enough that it may result in them eventually pursuing a career in a STEM-related field.

And given the wide-ranging assortment of activities - their interest should be well peaked. Activities include sumo robots, flight simulators, hazmat suits, understanding catapults, demonstrations about tornados, handheld microscopes, a blow up astronomy lab, wind turbines and building balloon jet cars.

Education agencies participating include Northeast Iowa Community College, Keystone Area Education Agency, University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University, Luther College and the University of Iowa.

Other participants include the Iowa National Guard, Iowa Public Television, Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa, Winnebago Boy Scouts, the Northeast Iowa STEM HUB, Winneshiek Medical Center and KWWL-TV.

Sponsors of Family STEM Festival include the Northeast Iowa STEM Region - University of Northern Iowa, NICC, Iowa Works Northeast Iowa, iExploreSTEM, Winneshiek County Community Foundation, Keystone Area Education Agency, Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, Northeast Iowa Business Network, Aim2Win and Winneshiek County Development Inc.

And now back to the question of how Family STEM Festival relates to Iowa's critical shortage of skilled workers.

The academic fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, have long been known to serve as engines of growth in both the Iowa and national economies. More than half of the growth in the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in recent decades can be linked to progress in technological innovation.

People working in STEM occupations earn an average of $14,000 more per year at every education level up through a master's degree, where the advantage is even greater.

And careers in STEM are going to become even more desirable as U.S. demand for scientists and engineers is expected to grow at four times the rate of all other occupations during the next decade. Iowa alone will demand about 67,300 STEM jobs by 2018, up from 57,830 in 2008.

With STEM jobs in such demand in the next few years, Iowa needs to work toward keeping the flow of talented workers coming. Toward that end, Gov. Terry Branstad has created six regional STEM Hub Centers, including the one in Cedar Falls that supports Northeast Iowa. All STEM Hub Centers share the common goal of creating more interest by students in STEM-related careers.

That's where the Northeast Iowa Family STEM Festival comes in. Create more interest in these high-demand fields and you may wind up with a stronger workforce down the road.

Is the STEM Festival the answer to Iowa's long-term work needs? No. Is it a good start? Yes.