Many recent teaching initiatives in engineering education have the underlying premise of improving student engagement with global issues and providing first-hand experience of complex problems associated with sustainable development and production. A greater understanding of actual motivational drivers may help in student recruitment and retention, and address, e.g. gender disparity. In this work, student motivations and aspirations are explored through a cross-faculty survey of undergraduate engineering students. The results indicate that while many students start an engineering degree with an aspiration to ‘invent something new’ and ‘make a difference to the world’, these diminish with time to be dominated by issues such as financial security. Students who continue to aspire to the creative/high-impact notions of engineering also maintain an enthusiasm for engineering. However, all students desire more practical work and skills training. Based on these findings, some general recommendations are given for further inspiring students towards engineering.