XinaBox Connects Students to Space and STEM to the Classroom

by Diana Drake

Bjarke Gotfredsen and Judi Sandrock, co-founders of XinaBox, a company in South Africa that makes modular hardware to inspire hands-on student STEM education, were traveling in the U.S. this holiday season and stopped by Philadelphia’s Wharton campus for a visit. KWHS managing editor Diana Drake sat down with Gotfredsen to find out more about his unique company and how it brings concepts like coding, programming, data analytics and the internet of things to the high school classroom. The company’s sensors give real-time readings on things like temperature, humidity and UV light levels. “Our XinaBox solution is very simple,” says Gotfredsen. “It’s Lego-style. You have small squares of electronic components, and you click them together with a little connector. The only thing you need is your hands. And you build an electronic circuit that way.”

Visit the podcast link at the top of this page to listen to the full interview. Below is an edited and excerpted transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: We’re here today with Bjarke Gotfredsen, founder and CEO of a company in Cape Town, South Africa, called XinaBox. XinaBox makes modular hardware that helps students learn about science, technology, engineering and math, particularly in how it applies to the internet of things. I want to know more about your company. Tell us about XinaBox.

Bjarke Gotfredsen: XinaBox was started four years ago, because there was a need for trying to get high school students, especially in South Africa, to be interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. We had a problem in South Africa. We had a lot of bursary or scholarships that both universities and private institutions were giving out, but there were not enough takers. The students coming out of the high schools were not qualified enough to take up engineering studies.

We were hired to try to figure out if we could create some excitement in the high schools for STEM. My co-founder [Judi Sandrock] and I decided, “We have to find something that’s really interesting.” And we decided space is the stuff. We decided that we have to come up with a way that high school students could build satellites, and we had to figure out a way they could do that without it requiring a lab, or a lot of investment for the different schools, since many schools in South Africa don’t have that kind of funding.

We bought the first privately owned satellite in Africa. And we came here to the U.S. to learn a little bit more about satellites and electronics in general. We ran into professor Bob Twiggs at Morehead State University in Kentucky. They had a program trying to get especially women to get into engineering and space science at Morehead University.

We adopted that program, took it back to South Africa, and it [involved] a little bit of electronics that had to be assembled. It required some kind of lab equipment, and we decided after a year of running that program, that no, we have to have something that requires nothing — just two hands.

So we came up with this XinaBox solution, which is very simple. It’s Lego-style. You have small squares of electronic components, and you click them together with a little connector. The only thing you need is your hands. And you build an electronic circuit that way.

We had great success [developing kits with these different components for schools] in South Africa, so we took it back to the U.S. and showed it to the guys at Morehead University. They thought that it was actually a cool project. And they were looking for something where high school students could build satellites.

In late 2016, they got a contract with Virginia Space, who launched the Antares rocket to the International Space Station. And that got us some space on the outside of the rocket to launch satellites from. We started a program together, and Virginia Space is funding [our collaborative program]. Bob Twiggs, who runs the Twiggs Space Lab, got a contract to put all this together, and we built the components that the students were going to put into the satellites — the payload, as it’s called. The satellite [students are building] is not big. It’s four-by-four inches and half-an-inch thick. So, it’s a very small satellite.

Students are sitting in a classroom without any lab and building these satellites. They have sent them to the guys who are integrating, putting it together. [These satellites are] going to fly in space. And they’re going to get the data. It’s using a technology where it sends the data to another satellite and students get it over the internet. So, they’re going to see the data from their satellite, via the internet.

KWHS: Tell me more about these xChips you’ve designed, and the sensors that you have in the satellites. What do they do?

Gotfredsen: Right now, we have around 75 of these different xChips, and we’re coming out with another 75 early next year. There are different categories of chips. The ones that are the easiest to understand are the sensors. So we, for example, have a weather sensor. It measures temperature, humidity and pressure. And when you have those three, you can calculate altitude and you can calculate dew point. You can calculate cloud base. The sensors give you an opportunity to interact with the real world. That’s the exciting part of this.

There are a couple of other components that you need, [which are part of the xChips we provide]. You need some power, you need an interface where you can connect it to your computer when you program it. You need a little CPU, or core, that you can program. Initially, we provide the program ready-made for the schools. The idea is that students very quickly get into programming it themselves. They can then read the data and they can upload the data to a database of their own, or one they can borrow from somewhere else, and they can see the data.

The whole idea with this way of programming is that [students] learn to code, but they learn to code in the real world. When we normally learn to program, we just have a screen, and a keyboard and mouse, and data is just simulated. We’re not having real data. Maybe we read them from somewhere, from the internet.

But when you code with sensors like this, you have, for example, a temperature sensor, where you can put your finger on it and change the temperature. Or you can upload a humidity sensor, and see that you actually have humid air coming out of you. And there’s a light sensor, where you can put your torch from your smartphone on it, or you can cover it with hands or fingers, and see how the light levels are. There’s a UVA and UVB sensor. You can take it outside and see that UVA and UVB radiation is still there, even if it’s on a cloudy day under a tree.

With these xChips, [students] can connect them initially when they get a class kit from us. There’s a number of different projects that they can play around with. Then many of the students choose to go their own route. They get some sensors themselves, and they start developing more advanced projects out of that.

“If we’re teachers or scientists, we just accept that the kids understand a little bit more. That’s how it’s going to be. The technology moves at such a pace that…the students will know, and they will pick it up much faster.” — Bjarke Gotfredsen

KWHS: What students have worked on your projects?

Gotfredsen: Our goal was high school students when we started. In South Africa, high schools are from grade eight to 12. We were targeting nine to 11. The last year, the students are very busy with their exams. So we were going a little bit earlier in.
We all have an idea about how hot or cold it is in a room. We know how cold or hot it is here right now. It’s plus or minus a few degrees. But you don’t know, necessarily, what the light level is in here. We don’t know what the humidity is. We don’t have a clear idea if it’s a lower or higher pressure than normal.

When the students have these xChips, they learn about the environment that way. We have a little screen so they can see the data on the screen, or they connect them to a database. They can create a graph and see it like that. Or they download it to Excel and look at it that way.

A student from Bishop O’Connell High school in Arlington, Virginia, has been able to get some tomato seeds that were grown at the International Space Station. And she’s compared them to tomato seeds that have only lived here on Earth. She’s using xChips to monitor the development of those two, so she can compare the two sets of seeds.

Nowadays, we say that [our Xchips] are for preschooler to Ph.D. Many universities have picked up [the program]. Especially in freshman year, there are a number of engineering studies where a student comes from a high school and has been tinkering with electronics and building something using a Raspberry Pi (a credit card-sized computer) or some of these smaller computers that they have been playing with. And they decide, ” I want to be an electronics engineer.”

The first year in university, it’s just theory. It’s numbers and formulas and a white board. A lot of the engineering students drop out after that first year. So, universities have said, “Listen, we have to have something to keep them going.” They have adopted the xChips and said, “In the initial years, we can start playing with that.” It’s a little bit easier to click xChips together than build your own circuitry.

It keeps on growing with the students. A lot of schools say, “We have to start learning programming earlier on, and we have to have something that’s exciting for the students, or something they can touch.” Many times when we program a laptop, it’s just there. It’s a virtual world. But if they have the xChips, we can excite them earlier.

KWHS: You sound passionate about the topic. And of course, we hear so much about coding and programming these days, and STEM. Why is it so important to have these skills?

Gotfredsen: I haven’t always been passionate about education, especially not my own. But the fact is that education is the key for getting out and getting a proper job in the future. And the biggest problem is that in the future, all jobs are STEM jobs. The World Economic Forum stated back in 2016 that 80% of all jobs by 2020 are STEM jobs. So we have to make sure that everybody goes down the road with the STEM jobs.

Another problem is that there are not a lot of women in STEM jobs. Worldwide, around 14% of all STEM jobs are occupied by women. In Africa, that number drops to 7%.

I focus on the programming because it will always help you. I have an accent because I was born in Denmark. I’ve lived in South Africa the last 20 years, but I still have my Danish accent. And my English wasn’t this great when I moved to South Africa. Today, it’s a good idea to have the English language, when you live in a global world like we do. If I only spoke Danish, [I would be limited]. [There are] a lot of people around the world that for many years have said, “We have to understand one of the big languages.” Now, that language is programming.

[When it comes to this, I don’t necessarily agree with top-down learning]. The way we [typically] train or lecture or teach in math, [for example], is that we have to learn about two and two is four, before we can get to differential integration. We have been using that top-down way of learning. This is also true in electronics. We have to learn resistors today and then next week capacitors and next week we learn about diodes, or something else.

My philosophy is to say, “No, no, no. We don’t learn like that. Start with something that’s fully-fledged; that works perfectly. And then you can learn about resistors down the line.” That’s how the computer hackers learn it. They get a computer that works perfectly and play a game with a friend. The friend wins. You ask the friend, “Why are you winning all the time?” He says, “Okay. I’ll tell you. I changed the graphics card.” “Well, show me.” You change the graphics card in the computer, and he still wins. “What did you do now?” “Well, I upgraded the memory.” Eventually, you figure out, “If I have to beat him, I have to start studying this myself. I have to Google, YouTube, figure out how to do it.”

And as I go down the line, I start modifying my computer myself. I figure out a little trick here and there to make it better… because I had a bottom-up learning experience.

KWHS: Things like data analytics and even coding and programming are being introduced into, say, secondary schools around the world in varying degrees. Some don’t have it at all. Many students don’t know what those terms mean. And I think that they feel intimidated by a lot of the language around this. I’m talking about students, but also educators. So what would you say to, say, the high school educator, high school student, who says, “Wow, that’s not for me. That’s way too high-tech.” But yet you’re saying, we all need to embrace this down the line. So, how do they get past that intimidation factor?

Gotfredsen: We’re sitting in a business school. And business schools have, over the last number of years, realized that we can’t teach our students anything. We have to facilitate the learning. When you put a class together with students in a business school, they probably have the knowledge already. We just need to move it from one student to all the students. So we facilitate the knowledge.

A lot of the teachers have to [realize that] when it comes to technology teaching, they have to facilitate [the learning]. They can’t be expected to know all the intricacies of any specific subject. If you want to start learning about programming…or you want to learn about electronics, [teachers must be facilitators]. There will be students even in a low-grade math who will know a lot more about [this topic] than I ever will. Many times we have accepted this already, because we had our kid programming our VCR. Now, we have him programming other stuff in the house.

And we accept that. If we’re teachers or scientists, we just accept that the kids understand a little bit more. [One teacher we have worked with in the U.S.] used to be a rocket scientist. Now she’s the STEM director for seven schools in the west end of Virginia. She has an engineering degree and background. When she comes to our [XinaBox] trainings, she brings a student with her. Because she knows that the student will catch up much faster than her. So, she will take one or two of the clever students in a class, and say, “You come along for this training, because you have to help me when we get back in the class, and teach some other kids how we do this.”

That’s just how it’s going to be. The technology moves at such a pace that you can’t expect to follow as a teacher. The students will know, and they will pick it up much faster. They will watch YouTube. They have better access to material now than we ever had before. Thirty years ago, we had to have the knowledge from the teachers, because we didn’t have YouTube or Google. Now we have it, and we even have it on a device that [we can access] on a school bus on the way to school.

As teachers, we have to accept that we have to facilitate the knowledge. You address your students with the technology and the opportunity to figure it out. You give them access to the internet, you give them the technology they can work with, you get them opportunities with the laptop. And then you make sure you are giving them that room and space to actually develop it.

Teachers [need to] encourage [their students]. Say, “You have to come up with a project. Can I help you come up with some ideas? Can I push you in the right direction?”

KWHS: I’m also intrigued by the fact that I hear a lot of students talking about self-learning, especially when it comes to technology and coding and programming. They’re going on YouTube, or they’re going online, and they’re learning things themselves because they’re not necessarily getting it in the classroom.

Gotfredsen: [The issue of not getting it in the classroom] is a much bigger problem in South Africa than many other places. During Apartheid, which ended 24 years ago, it was illegal to teach black students math and science. A lot of the teachers who were around back then don’t have a math and science background. There are a lot of students who have to try to help teach math and science and they don’t have the background [from school]. So, they’re being fast-tracked to learn some math. But being fast-tracked to learn math in a later stage is tough.

When we go out to schools, we try to say to students, “It’s your responsibility to find the learning yourself. You can’t rely on your teachers. You have to figure out how to get that knowledge yourself.” You can’t just say, “My teacher didn’t tell me, so therefore I don’t know,” and then go through life. When you get out of school, the teacher’s not there. It’s your life. You have to take responsibility for your [own] learning. And you have to find that thing that you’re passionate about and learn it.


XinaBox components fit together with small connectors to create electronic circuits.
XinaBox components fit together with small connectors to create electronic circuits.


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Conversation Starters

If you were part of a focus group for XinaBox, what would you most like them to know about learning to program and understanding the worlds of coding and electronics while in high school? How can these concepts and education become more relevant for you as a student? As an educator?

Do you use YouTube and other resources to self-teach things like coding? What resources do you find most helpful?

Have you participated in a STEM-related internship or project. Share your experience and new knowledge with other students in the Comment section of this article. Maybe we will feature you in KWHS!

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