We previously developed and assessed “The Art of Microbiology,” a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) which uses agar art to spur student experimentation, where we found student outcomes related to science persistence. However, these outcomes were not correlated with specific activities and gains were not reported from more than one class. In this study, we explored which of the three major activities in this CURE-agar art, experimental design, or poster presentations-affected student engagement and outcomes associated with improved understanding of the nature of science (NOS). The Art of Microbiology was studied in three microbiology teaching laboratories: at a research university with either the CURE developer (18 students) or a CURE implementer (39 students) and at a community college with a CURE implementer (25 students). Our quasi-experimental mixed methods study used pre/post-NOS surveys and semi-structured class-wide interviews. Community college students had lower baseline NOS responses but had gains in NOS similar to research university students post-CURE. We surveyed research university students following each major activity using the Assessing Student Perspective of Engagement in Class Tool (ASPECT) survey but did not find a correlation between NOS and activity engagement. Of the three activities, we found the highest engagement with agar art, especially in the CURE developer class. Interviewed students in all classes described agar art as a fun, relevant, and low-stakes assignment. This work contributes to the evidence supporting agar art as a curricular tool, especially in ways that can add research to classrooms in and beyond the research university.