To teach students about electrical engineering, would the Arduino be a good fit? Or would it be more appropriate to teach them the theory with simulators, or something else completely?
Given the relative inexpensive cost of the arduino and all of its available variants, I think it's a perfect platform. What we're finding is that when learners are engaging more of their senses during the act of learning, they're more likely to integrate the concepts. Since the arduino really connects the physical world to the digital world, it's awesome for cementing the abstract skills of programming an LED to turn on with code, and actually seeing it happen in real life.
Please do. You can get them at Radio Shack now, and they're well within reach cost-wise. Also: open source and cross-platform. The Arduino is a winner all the way around for beginners.
Yes, it's a good platform. The only better newbie platform I can think of is NXT -- but that is expensive and is an intro to robotics, not electronics.
Arduinos are insanely easy to use if you understand a bit of programming (the amount of programming required to code Arduinos at a basic level can be taught in an hour or less. A student can be taught a lot of electronics using an Arduino, and have fun in the process as well. Compare this to just letting them make simple circuits (boring), or having them work with a bare microcontroller (scary).
Simulators work as well. But simulators are even more abstract, and a student will find it hard to relate with one. On the other hand, arm the student with an Arduino and a multimeter, and they'll be able to relate to the system much better. While this seems like a hollow point, "being able to relate to the system" for topics like programming/math/EE is quite important. Students new to the topic just see the system as something abstract, and can't relate to it. Till they are able to relate to it, they'll always have trouble understanding it.
Again, Arduino is really, really easy to catch on to. I've seen a batch of ~600 students learn basic Arduino (enough to make a radio-controlled bot) just from a couple of sessions. There's an abundance of online materials, and it's quite easy to catch on to.
Go for it!
Simulators simply can't do justice to learning electronics.
Tools that simulate circuits tend to be very limiting to someone who doesn't have a full understanding of electrical engineering. For example, you have to understand how to properly setup the simulation and then how to interpret the results. Tools like the java-based Falstad circuit simulator is a bit easier to use (http://www.falstad.com/circuit/), however, I would imagine high school students would rather see a LED flash.
If you use a simulator to simulate the firmware of a microcontroller, you might as well just teach programming on a PC.
One option is to use the Ruggeduino: http://ruggedcircuits.com/html/ruggeduino.html. The designer made it with education in mind.
I started using Arduino's during my first year of college and I enjoyed using it. Using it as a tool to teach high school students would be great. It would be a much better alternative than using a simulator. Arduino is relatively inexpensive platform and is easy to use. Many students will be able to grasp concepts and use it effectively. There seem to be some examples of teachers using Arduino boards in high school. Also, there is a Introduction to Arduino comic under development which will help with the teaching process.
Demonstrations and small projects will be the best way to go about engaging the students and who knows, you might inspire some of them to create something awesome!