Professor repurposes computers to help college students in Madagascar

Workers load computers onto a truck


When Steve Dytman, professor emeritus in the Physics and Astronomy Department, visited the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, he saw a group of physics students huddled around one computer, sharing it to do complex computations.

“(I) was shocked at the small number of computers available to such a large cohort of students,” Dytman says. “They have something like 300 graduate students in physics and a handful of computers. Whereas, in our department, we have 80 graduate students, and we have hundreds of computers.”

Dytman estimated the student-to-computer ratio in the physics department of the University of Antananarivo to be roughly one computer for 10 to 20 students. He compares that to his department’s ratio of three computers per student.

“It’s a disparity that is just shocking,” Dytman says.

This inspired Dytman and a handful of Pitt staff, faculty and graduate students to coordinate a donation of more than 40 used computers from surplus to the Madagascar university, more than 9,000 miles away. The journey officially began on July 11. 

Dytman did the overall coordination of the project, while Gracie Gollinger, a computer consultant at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Jeremy Reiff, a graduate student, gathered and prepared the shipment of computers, monitors and servers. Department Chair Arthur Kosowsky provided support and funding for the whole process.

Access to computers can often determine a student’s success in physics, Dytman says. This is because the amount of physics problems that can be solved on a piece of paper has gotten smaller after decades of research in the field, Dytman says. And computers, which allow for more complex computations, are crucial for students when it comes to solving many physics problems.

Laza Rakotondravohitra, a former physics student at the University of Antananarivo and medical physicist resident at Duke University Medical Center, says some high-energy particle physics students do enjoy working on these problems by hand, but the computers would still be an invaluable resource. 

“The majority of students cannot afford to have computers of their own to do work. We used public computers that we pay by the minute or borrow someone (else’s) computers,” Rakotondravohitra says. “That was at least my case and the case of students from poor families.”

The high-energy particle physics department at Antananarivo had a single computer for lectures and presentations while he was there.

“Students strive to work hard,” he says. “Given the chance, we can achieve a lot.”

He and Dytman originally met in 2015 while collaborating at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago, in the MINERvA experiment group. 

Rakotondravohitra, the first in his family to attend graduate school, later invited Dytman to visit Madagascar for his thesis defense. There, Dytman also gave a talk about experimental neutrino physics.

The donation process for the shipment wasn’t easy, Dytman says. The Madagascar State Department delayed the shipment with its extensive vetting process. It took nearly three years for approval but Rakotondravohitra helped push it through.

The computers — each operating on Linux, or “the language of physics” as Dytman put it — will be shipped by boat and will arrive sometime early September. 

Once they arrive at the port, they will have to travel about 100 miles inland on the two-lane road from the port to Antananarivo. Rakotondravohitra said a group of students and a faculty member from the university will rent a truck to make the process smoother. 

“Dytman is a great mentor and was dedicated to make this happen despite many (difficulties) we faced,” Rakotondravohitra says. “Students that cannot afford computers are now given the same chance to those who can afford and do research more efficiently.”

Dytman says he’s happy that the shipment is finally on its way. He said this is “one small step” of a big process to help the students aspiring to study physics or other STEM subjects. Madagascar also needs larger foreign investment from major companies to give more job opportunities to graduates, he says. 

In the future, Dytman also hopes to extend more educational opportunities to the Madagascar students, but the economic disparities in the country can weaken their training. He’s also hoping to inspire other departments to participate in similar donation efforts.

“This is something that should be easy. And it is a way of people in developed countries to help undeveloped countries,” Dytman says. “What I’m really looking forward to is seeing a picture of all the students I met, standing among the computers, working on the computers in Madagascar. And I have a picture of that room, as an empty room and put the two side by side. I think it’ll give everyone a lot of joy.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.