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Upakarmam means beginning or "Arambham", or to begin the study of the Veda.
Those belonging to the Yajur Veda observe the Upakarma in the month of Sravana, on full moon / Poornima Day.
Those belonging to the Rig Veda observe the Upakarma in the month of Sraavana, on Sravana Nakshatra Day. 
This auspicious day also happens to be the day when Lord Narayana took the avatara as Lord Hayagriva. Lord Hayagriva restored the Vedas to Brahma and also is the God of Knowledge. In the not too distant a past, Veda Adhyayanam / study was performed only during the period Sravana / Avani to Pushya / Tai. (from mid-August to mid-January). Therefore, one is supposed to perform an utsarjanam / giving up of the learning of Vedas in the month of Pushya / Tai. 
from Pushya / Tai to Sravana /  Avani, Just like a Upakarma function there was a Utsarjana function in Tai. The period between January to August was then devoted to learning other branches of our shastras. Thus the cycle ofUpakarma and Utsarjana with regard to Vedic studies was established. However, this method took 12 or more years to learn just one veda. Slowly this became impractical and Vedic studies continued throughout the year. 
Therefore, the first thing to do before the Upakarma function is to do a praayaschitta / atonement  for having learned Vedas during the prohibited period. That's why we begin the function by doing the "Kamokarshit..." japam 
The main purpose of the Upakarma function is to offer prayers and express our gratitude to those rishis who gave us the Vedas -- the rishis through whom the Vedic mantras were revealed.