In the innovation process, design practice involves multiple iterations of framing and reframing under high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. Additionally, as user desirability is a significant criterion for innovative design, designers' empathy in the framing and reframing process is considered a critical user-centered design ability that engineering students should develop. In this context, this study aims to discuss how problem framing and empathy manifestation interplay in the innovation process. As an exploratory study, this study investigates biomedical engineering (BME) students’ reframing processes and decisions in a one-semester design project involving problem definition and concept identification. This investigation is guided by the following research questions: 1) how do engineering students perceive the relationship between empathy and reframing in the innovation process, 2) how and how often do they make reframing decisions over the stages of problem definition and concept identification, and 3) how different are reframing processes and decisions between teams with higher and lower empathetic design tendency scores? This study was conducted in a junior-level design course, including 76 BME students. We collected and analyzed three data sources: students’ self-reflection reports about their reframing processes, empathic design tendency score, and interviews with selected teams and instructors. The results demonstrated that more than half of the students perceived the connection between empathy and their reframing decisions and that they usually had one reframing moment in the stages of problem definition and concept identification. Also, the findings illustrate triggers for their reframing moments, information sources guiding their reframing processes, changes made through reframing, and influences of reframing decisions on team project processes. Furthermore, the comparison of the selected two teams revealed two differences in reframing processes between the high and low empathic design tendency-scoring teams. The authors believe that the study expands engineering education research on engineering students’ empathy and problem-framing by illustrating students’ reframing processes throughout a design project and exploring the interplay of empathy and reframing processes. Also, based on our study findings, engineering design educators can promote student empathy development by including more project activities and evaluation criteria related to empathic design and providing formative feedback on their reframing processes.
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