Before the development of the Arduino project, a convenient tool was the BASIC Stamp. This was a microprocessor mounted on a small circuit with some secondary chips, one of which was a BASIC interpreter. With these boards, a BASIC program would be loaded onto the sensor, then the interpreter would run the program (converting it to the appropriate machine language for the chip). This differs from the Arduino, which translate the C-program to machine language then sends it to the board. The Parallax, makers of the BASIC stamp also produced the "Board of Education", which was a socket for a BASIC Stamp chip board, along with a prototype board and various power supplies, and a USB or serial interface (see images below). Along with the board of education, they also assembled and sold various "kits" with excellent tutorials to teach about various aspects and uses for microprocessors. Our reason for moving towards Arduino-style boards was because of variety and cost.
I would recommend the Applied Sensor (also under the title "Earth Measurements") by Tracy Allen, and published by Parallax. Dr Allen has also made the book available on his website (link below) book for beginners. It contains what you need, and could easily be used on an Arduino, you would just have to translate the code from BASIC to C (which is easier than it may sound).
It is worth visiting the Parallax web (click on BASIC Stamp, below) site to see their range of products. When getting started it is sometimes worth buying a kit, that way you know you have all the components you need. People who already have a good source of electronic components can more easily build their own kits..